Gates spends millions on global health research

Software tycoon Bill Gates’ philanthropic foundation is paying out more than £240m (€360.7m) to fund 43 research projects, from finding Aids vaccines to boosting the nutritional content of bananas.

Software tycoon Bill Gates’ philanthropic foundation is paying out more than £240m (€360.7m) to fund 43 research projects, from finding Aids vaccines to boosting the nutritional content of bananas.

British charity The Wellcome Trust, which funds medical research, has contributed £15m (€22.5m) to the programme and the Canadian Institutes of Health have committed £2.5m (€3.8m).

The grants will be administered by those organisations as well as the Foundation for the National Institutes of Health in the US.

Gates’ foundation has committed a total of £250m (€375.7m) to the programme, which it calls its “Grand Challenges in Global Health” initiative, and more grants are expected to be announced later.

Two years ago, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation posed a series of questions to scientists around the world: How can we improve public health in developing countries?

Can we develop vaccines that don’t require refrigeration or needles? Are there better ways to stop insects from spreading malaria and other diseases?

The scientists answered by proposing more than 1,500 projects.

“It’s shocking how little research is directed toward the diseases of the world’s poorest countries,” Microsoft founder Gates said in a statement. “By harnessing the world’s capacity for scientific innovation, I believe we can transform health in the developing world and save millions of lives.”

The funding will help researchers prove the feasibility of several potentially brilliant ideas. They include:

:: A team headed by Abraham Sonenshein of the Tufts University School of Medicine in Boston will get £2.7m (€4.1m) to create childhood vaccines that do not need refrigeration.

Sonenshein’s plan is to encapsulate the vaccines in harmless – but naturally heat-resistant – bacterial spores. The vaccines could be distributed in packets for people to mix with water and drink.

:: An international team headed by Scott Leslie O’Neill of the University of Queensland in Australia will get £3.7m (€5.6m) to introduce a bacterial parasite to a mosquito population in a laboratory.

The parasite, which occurs naturally in other insects, should cause the mosquitoes to die before they are old enough to transmit dengue fever, which infects up to 100 million people every year. Mosquitoes have become resistant to some insecticides.

:: Four grants totalling £26m (€39.1m) are being given to researchers fighting malnutrition by genetically altering the nutritional content of bananas, cassava, rice and sorghum.

For example, bananas with more vitamin A and E and iron could improve health in Uganda, where 38% of children under five are stunted from malnourishment.

:: Paul Yager of the University of Washington, whose team is receiving £8.5m (€12.8m), will attempt to develop an inexpensive handheld device that can test blood for a wide range of conditions, including bacterial infections, nutritional status and HIV-related illnesses.

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