26 October 2009

Brave new world of health ideas

Chocolate as a malaria treatment? Cell phones to detect pneumonia? Who’d fund such outlandish research proposals? The likes of Bill Gates, no less, to the tune of $100 million.

Chocolate as a malaria treatment? Cell phones to detect pneumonia? Who’d fund such outlandish research proposals? The likes of Bill Gates, no less, to the tune of $100 million.

Lively minds from around the world are thinking up bold new ideas to outwit some of humanity’s most devastating enemies.

Last week in Arusha, Tanzania, the Gates Foundation granted US$100,000 each to 76 creative – and often unconventional – projects aimed at battling the gravest infectious diseases, like malaria, TB, HIV/Aids and pneumonia.

This was the third round of “Grand Challenges Explorations”, a five-year, $100-million funding programme to promote innovative research in global health, part of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s Grand Challenges in Global Health initiative.

Malaria: old foe, new weapons
This year, the theme of malaria eradication was paramount. Each year this disease, which has ravaged humankind for centuries, still claims over a million lives, mostly children in sub-Saharan Africa.

South African Peter Lubega Yiga, of AdhocWorks Foundation in Johannesburg, received a grant to develop his idea for a fermentation-based organic insect repellent as an alternative to standard insecticides. His non-toxic formulation is mixed with water in ordinary household containers, releasing carbon dioxide and alcohol vapours to repel malaria-carrying mosquitoes.

Yiga’s idea is just what Grand Challenges Explorations is looking for: smart, fresh perspectives with the potential to be cheaply and feasibly applied to improve human health, particularly in the developing world where the infectious disease crisis is most acute.

Barmy, or brilliant?
Many of the ideas are risky in terms of financial investment, and are unlikely to be backed as a “sure thing” by big pharmaceutical companies for funding. Such proposals also often get scoffed at and stifled by researchers’ peers.

But, as Dr Tachi Yamada, president of the Health Programme pointed out last week when addressing delegates at the 2009 Grand Challenges in Global Health Conference, sometimes breakthroughs in medical science come about as a result of unorthodox approaches that are initially unsupported by the scientific community.

He cites the discovery of the cause of stomach ulcers as a famous example of this. When peers would not accept scientist Barry Marshall’s theory that Helicobacter pylori bacterium rather than stress or spicy food caused most ulcers, he eventually swallowed some of the bacteria himself to prove it.

Many off-beat ideas end up on the scientific scrap-heap, but a few extraordinary ones don’t – and it’s those that “Explorations” wants to find and bring to the fore through the grant process.

“We only expect about 10% of those that receive grants to turn out to be exceptionally useful,” said Yamada. “We’re going to support those that do with an additional $1 million.”

It’s too early to tell which of this year’s thought crop will do really well, but some of these intriguing examples may indeed do so:

Chocolate and chewing gum to fight malaria
It sounds like every child’s fantasy medicine. Steven Maranz (United States), thinks that giving kids chocolate may protect them against malaria.

Chocolate (as well as green tea, cola and shea nuts) contains high levels of flavonols, compounds that act to deprive malaria parasites of the essential fats they need to survive. A diet rich in flavonols won’t destroy the parasites completely, but Maranz hopes it will keep infection levels low enough to trigger a strong immune response that affords the child life-long protection against the disease.

Andrew Fung (US) aims to identify malaria proteins present in saliva in order to develop a chewing gum diagnostic tool called “MALiVA.” During chewing, particles in the gum will react with these proteins, which can then be detected when scanned with a magnet.

Natural science
As with Maranz’ chocolate flavonols and Yiga’s fermented insect repellent, many of the grant winners have felt driven to find more natural, environmentally-sound alternatives to increasingly outmoded toxic means of fighting mosquitoes.

Annette Habluetzel (Italy) seeks to develop a food pellet for mosquito larvae that is made from non-toxic, organic compounds. These only become poisonous to living organisms when activated by sunlight. Mosquito larvae are transparent, and once they ingest the food, sunlight shines though their bodies, activating the pellets and killing the larvae, but leaving other animals unharmed.

Researchers also looked to nature for curative compounds and inspiration.

Lourival Possani (Mexico), for example, will be investigating scorpine, a newly identified compound found in scorpion venom that shows promise in blocking replication of malaria parasites in their mosquito hosts. The result, hopes Possani, could be a new generation of malaria-resistant mosquitoes that wouldn’t transmit the disease to humans.

Allison Ficht (US) will develop a new system of delivering TB vaccine through the nasal passages. Ficht is basing her system on the sticky protein used by parasitic worms to seal their egg cases. This sticky coating could protect tiny vaccine particles during intranasal administration, affix them to the mucuous membranes of the nose and from there gradually release them for enhanced immune response against TB.

Exploiting affordable technologies
Other researchers looked at ways to exploit current, widely used technology. Udantha Abeyratne (Australia), for example, proposes using low-cost, familiar devices such as mobile phones and mp3 players equipped with microphones to record cough and sleeping sounds in patients. Making using of human speech analysis techniques, Abeyratne then hopes to identify sounds that indicate the presence of pneumonia.

Scott Phillips (US) proposes developing a polymer for the bottom of paper cups used to collect TB sputum sample. Proteins from the TB bacteria will turn the cup bright orange.

(- Olivia Rose-Innes, Health24, October 2009)

Read more:
Nature - who needs it?
Malaria Centre


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