This week in Seattle, I’ll be speaking at our annual Grand Challenges in Global Health (GCGH) conference. We’ll be looking at what has been accomplished and what we’ve learned since awarding the first round of GCGH grants in 2005.
We launched GCGH five years ago with an ambitious goal: find innovative ideas to tackle the most persistent health issues in developing countries. We knew that to find the tools we needed to improve health around the world, we had to think beyond conventional science. We turned to the best, most creative minds from all scientific fields—immunology, physics, biology and even engineering—and asked them to apply their talents to global health research.
In five years, scientists from around the world have taken up this challenge. For example, Dr. James Baker, a scientist and professor at the University of Michigan created a new way to prepare and administer vaccines as nasal drops. They don’t require constant refrigeration—a huge challenge in many developing countries. During the grant period, Dr. Baker was able to apply this technology to three diseases—Hepatitis B, influenza, and respiratory syncytial virus.
I find this kind of “technology platform” that you could apply to multiple diseases particularly exciting because our work is not simply about scientific discovery. It’s about delivering effective solutions. Some of what I consider the greatest successes are grants that have led to new partnerships with the potential to turn great scientific ideas into real-world solutions.
Dr. Rafi Ahmed, an immunologist at Emory University, for example, built a partnership with Genentech, a biotech company. Ahmed and his team have shown that it is possible to reinvigorate T-cells “exhausted” from chronic viral infections such as Hepatitis C and HIV—an approach that could be applied to a therapeutic vaccine or new combination treatments.
Similarly, Richard Axel, a Nobel Prize-winning neuroscientist, and Leslie Vosshall, a scientist at The Rockefeller University, are now collaborating with Bayer CropSciences and SentiSearch to continue their research on novel compounds that block insects’ abilities to find plant or human targets. The compounds they identify could become the insect repellent of the future.
Even projects that weren't scientifically successful taught us valuable lessons. For me, investing in these projects is worth the risk. I believe that risk-taking is essential if we are to develop truly transformative health technologies. And the Grand Challenges program continues to evolve as we learn the best ways to push the envelope further. So while we will continue to support this kind of innovative research, it is important that new donors and organizations do more to fund this kind of work. I believe that projects like Baker’s, Ahmed’s and Axel’s—among many others—prove that these are challenges worth tackling.