SEATTLE – Using microwaves to kill malaria parasites and developing a way to give fetuses immunity to HIV are among the dozen ideas the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation thinks are worth more research dollars, after giving more than 500 scientists seed money to take an initial look at some far-out concepts.
A dozen scientists or teams of researchers will each get an additional $1 million over five years to take their ideas to the next level and see if they have the potential to save lives, the foundation announced Wednesday.
The foundation initially chose more than 500 scientific ideas out of nearly 20,000 proposals for its Grand Challenges Explorations grants, worth $100,000 each, saying it would be taking a calculated risk by giving money for whatever wacky idea the world's best minds come up with to combat malaria, HIV and other world health problems.
The ideas remain highly speculative into the $1 million stage.
"They run against conventional wisdom," said Chris Wilson, director of the foundation's Global Health Discovery program. "Of course, more often than not, conventional wisdom is right."
As an example, he points to the idea of using microwaves to kill malaria parasites, from within their hosts — mice for the experiment, but humans eventually.
"That's probably not going to work," Wilson said. "But if it did work, it would be pretty stunning."
The scientist, Jose Stoute, a medical researcher who specializes in infectious diseases at Penn State University, might not appreciate that less-then-enthusiastic endorsement, but Wilson says the same thing about nearly all these grants.
"Science is a place where lots of things don't work," he said, adding that the foundation remains optimistic about these grants. "I think we're cautiously optimistic that somewhere along this path, some of these might happen," he said.
To graduate to a million dollar grant, the scientists have to prove their initial idea has merit as a potential way to save lives and that it is practical and potentially scalable and affordable, Wilson said.
Stoute said he and his co-collaborator, Carmenza Spadafora at Panama's Institute of Advanced Scientific Investigations and High Technology Services, got the idea for the project from an innovative cancer treatment involving microwaves that uses iron to tag cancer cells.
Since the malaria parasite naturally collects iron as a byproduct of its actions within the human body, they thought malaria might be another good target for microwave treatment. Stoute is working with microwave engineers to design a machine to deliver the treatment in the lab.
Collaboration among different kinds of scientists is an attribute of many of the Grand Challenges projects.
Mike McCune, professor of medicine at the University of California San Francisco, said working in multidisciplinary teams has helped a number of researchers from his university get a Gates grant.
His project, to fight HIV infection while a fetus is in the uterus, takes a number of known scientific principals and combines them in a new way.
He is working to utilize what scientists already know about the unique and effective immune system of the human fetus, plus the way vaccines work on newborns and the success so far at decreasing the number of HIV transmissions from mother to child in this country.
Considering how much blood passes from mother to baby while an HIV-affected mother is pregnant, McCune says it's nearly miraculous that most of those babies of those mothers are not born HIV-positive. Most are affected later through breastfeeding or via blood at birth. His goal is to strengthen and prolong a child's natural immunity.
For now, McCune is testing his theories on non-human primates, by giving vaccines to mothers who hopefully will pass immunity along to their fetuses.
"This is not science fiction. Everything I've told you has a longstanding history to it," McCune said. "The Gates grant allows me and others to take existing dogmas and paradigms and throw them out the window."
Not all the projects take a high tech approach to fighting disease.
Some scientists are looking at more practical considerations such as the way existing disease fighting solutions are applied, like Teun Bousema, an epidemiologist at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and Radboud University Nijmegen Medical Centre in the Netherlands.
Bousema want to work toward eliminating malaria in African villages by targeting all the interventions — from spraying insecticides to installing bed nets and killing mosquito larvae — around the people who get bit the most. He learned with his earlier Gates grant that those people can be identified through blood tests.
Up to this point, most malaria prevention and treatment has focused on the most vulnerable populations, such as children, but Bousema said that approach will never lead to elimination of the disease.
Humans and mosquitoes are both required for malaria to spread, so the approach has to be targeted and thorough.
"Some critics may question whether this is cost-effective," said Bousema, acknowledging that his approach may be costly per person but he theorizes they would only need to target a few households to effectively help a whole village.
His idea could be applied to any new malaria-fighting tool that is developed. If a new vaccine is developed to block malaria transmission, it would likely be impossible to give it to everyone in Africa. If Bousema's idea works, universal vaccination wouldn't be necessary.
Donna Blankinship can be reached at http://twitter.com/dgblankinship