Gates foundation awards $100,000 grants for novel global health research

May 10, 2010
By: Robert Sanders, Media Relations

Two University of California, Berkeley, scientists each will receive a $100,000 Grand Challenges Explorations grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to explore innovative research that could impact global health.

The grants to Jennifer Doudna and John Ngai, both UC Berkeley professors of molecular and cell biology, are among 78 grants announced today (Monday, May 10) by the foundation in the fourth funding round of Grand Challenges Explorations, an initiative to help scientists around the world "explore bold and largely unproven ways to improve health in developing countries," according to the foundation. The winning proposals, selected from almost 2,700 in this round alone, were submitted by scientists in 18 countries on six continents.

Doudna, a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator and a faculty scientist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, studies ribonucleic acid, or RNA, which is a molecular cousin to the DNA that makes up genes. RNAs in various forms are responsible for an array of functions inside cells, from synthesizing proteins and exporting them from the cell, to regulating the expression of genes.

Her project would use RNA restriction enzymes, which target and cut very specific sequences of nucleic acid, to detect the RNA specific to viruses or bacteria. These restriction enzymes could be imprinted on paper and made to change color when exposed to viral or bacterial RNA in urine, much the way over-the-counter pregnancy tests change color when exposed to hormones in urine.

"We plan to detect viral RNA sequences in clinical samples by creating a suite of enzymes that specifically recognize RNA sequences characteristic of viruses including HIV, hepatitis C and influenza," Doudna wrote in her two-page proposal.

Ngai, the Coates Family Professor of Neuroscience at the Helen Wills Neuroscience Institute, studies the genetic and molecular basis of the sense of smell. Because the female reproductive system lays down a trail of odor-like molecules to draw swimming sperm toward the egg for fertilization, he and post-doctoral fellow Scott Laughlin propose to confuse the sperm with excess odorant and thereby prevent sperm from finding egg.

"We believe this novel contraceptive could work when administered to either female or male party, orally or topically," he wrote in his application. "It could be used discreetly by women, and, based on the properties of known odorants, these molecules should be amenable to cheap production for widespread distribution in economically disadvantaged regions."

Two other UC Berkeley researchers have won Grand Challenges Explorations grants in past rounds. Daniel Fletcher, associate professor of bioengineering, hopes to use cell phone microscopy to diagnose malaria. Suzanne M. J. Fleiszig, professor of vision science and optometry, will attempt to understand how the healthy eye staves off infection with natural antimicrobial molecules, in hopes of finding novel strategies to combat infectious disease in general.

"The winners of these grants show the bold thinking we need to tackle some of the world's greatest health challenges," noted Dr. Tachi Yamada, president of the Gates Foundation's Global Health Program. "I'm excited about their ideas and look forward to seeing some of these exploratory projects turn into life-saving breakthroughs."

Grand Challenges Explorations is a five-year, $100 million initiative of the Gates foundation to promote innovation in global health. The program uses an agile, streamlined grant process - applications are limited to two pages, and preliminary data are not required. Proposals are reviewed and selected by a committee of foundation staff and external experts, and grant decisions are made within approximately three months of the close of the funding round.

Link here for more information on the foundation's funding program.