October 21, 2009 in City

Gates grants back unusual research

Unconventional thinkers score awards
Donna Gordon Blankinship Associated Press

SEATTLE – What do chewing gum, chocolate and malaria have to do with each other? Not much, unless you’re a young scientist exploring unusual ways to think about world health.

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation on Tuesday announced new grants of $100,000 each for 76 unconventional approaches to world problems.

One will help a UCLA doctoral candidate explore the idea of using chewing gum to detect malaria biomarkers in saliva. Another will give a researcher at Weill Cornell Medical College in New York the money he needs to test chocolate for combating the malaria parasite.

Andrew Fung – the UCLA student – admits his idea for an inexpensive and noninvasive new way to detect malaria started out as an intellectual exercise designed to showcase his creativity for a potential postdoctorate employer. He was hoping for a job, not a research grant. He may get both.

Fung’s idea was built on the need for a malaria test that does not require a blood draw and on research using saliva for detecting other diseases. On the plus side: Saliva is relatively easy to collect, the process is painless and the gum test doesn’t require a battery or computer to run.

Tuesday’s announcement is the third round of the Gates Foundation’s Grand Challenges Exploration program to support innovative, unconventional global health research.

The five-year health research grants are designed to encourage scientists to pursue bold ideas that could lead to breakthroughs, focusing on ways to prevent and treat infectious diseases, such as HIV, malaria, tuberculosis, pneumonia and diarrheal diseases.

Nearly 3,000 proposals came in for the third round of grants. Dr. Tachi Yamada, president of the Gates Foundation’s Global Health Program, said the foundation hopes this grant program will someday produce a breakthrough idea that could save untold numbers of lives.

This year’s 76 grants will go to researchers from 16 countries trying to answer a variety of questions: Can a brief bout of exercise enhance the efficiency of the pneumococcal vaccine? Can you diagnose tuberculosis by analyzing breath samples? Should vaccines be administered under the tongue?

Unconventional science is what attracted Steven Maranz, a Weill Cornell Medical College researcher, to the Grand Challenges Exploration program.

Maranz’s plan to look at the effect of chocolate on the malaria parasite is based on conventional science.

Maranz had been studying medicinal plants from West Africa and testing them to see how they affect the malaria parasite. Both current and past drugs effective at killing the malaria parasite were based on compounds that come from plants.

Since the malaria parasite has developed, over time, resistance to the drugs used to treat people, Maranz doesn’t want to kill the parasite. He wants to find ways to interrupt its life cycle in other ways.

Chocolate is a promising substance for malaria research because it binds with cholesterol and takes it out of circulation. Since the malaria parasite feeds on fat in the blood, if you take away the fat, you starve the parasite, Maranz said.

Maranz wants to kill some of the parasites but leave enough in the blood to help children develop a lifetime resistance to malaria. He will be looking at several different compounds but he thinks chocolate is the best candidate because it is rich in the right elements and is known to be safe.

His chocolate “medicine” will be delivered in a liquid form, similar to hot chocolate.

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