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October 20, 2009 at 4:00 PM

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A taste for bold ideas -- chewing gum to detect malaria?

Posted by Kristi Heim

Add two new weapons to the potential arsenal against malaria -- chewing gum and chocolate.

They are among dozens of unconventional approaches to global health problems that won backing today from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The foundation is giving out 76 grants of $100,000 each to researchers in 16 countries.

The awards known as Grand Challenges Explorations, smaller and riskier bets the foundation is making to encourage creativity among scientists around the world, include people in areas such as chemistry, engineering, statistics and business who have never focused on health before.

The third round of projects explore new low-cost ways to diagnose diseases, fight malaria and HIV, and find more effective vaccines. Among the winners:

  • Andrew Fung of the University of California, Los Angeles, aims to develop chewing gum that can detect the presence of malaria in a person's saliva. Fung calls his diagnostic tool "MALiVA." During chewing, particles in the gum will react with malaria proteins, which can be detected and characterized when the gum is scanned with a magnet.
  • Kate Edwards at the University of San Diego will study whether a brief bout of exercise can make a pneumonia vaccine work better.
  • Steven Maranz of Weill Cornell Medical College in New York will test a compound contained in chocolate to find out whether providing children high levels of flavanols, found in chocolate, green tea and nuts, deprives malaria parasites of lipids needed to survive, keeping the infection at levels low enough to elicit a strong immune response and build lifelong immunity.
  • Ranjan Nanda of the International Centre for Genetic Engineering & Biotechnology in India will attempt to create a handheld "electronic nose" that gathers and analyzes breath samples to diagnose tuberculosis.
  • Margaret Njoroge of Med Biotech Laboratories in Uganda will develop a nasal vaccine for mothers, designed to induce antibodies against malaria in breast milk and pass that immunity on to their babies.
  • Researchers at the University of California, Berkeley are attempting to marry a microscope with a cell phone to capture high-contrast fluorescent images of malaria parasites, with software on the phone that can count the parasites and wirelessly transmit the results to clinics.

The foundation is currently considering applications for the fourth round of funding, which closes on Nov. 2, and it's adding a new topic this time around -- new technologies for birth control.

Seeking novel solutions to an old problem, the foundation notes that family planning is one of the most cost effective ways to reduce deaths among mothers and children, but 200 million women in developing countries lack effective contraception.

So far, 262 researchers from 30 countries have been awarded grants through the Grand Challenges program, a five-year, $100 million initiative to promote innovation in global health.

Since the projects are so experimental, I'll be interested to see how the first ones have fared a year after their initial funding, and whether any of them are going on to the next stage in November. Successful projects can compete for a follow-on grant of $1 million or more, but no such grants have been awarded yet.

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