Each of the 100 recipients in the recent round of Gates Foundation grants for bold ideas in global health, including the three projects from Seattle, gets $100,000 to figure out if their proposal has a chance of flying. A lucky few may go on to win $1 million in follow-up funding.
Three Seattle projects are among more than 100 winners in the most recent round of a Gates Foundation program to encourage bold ideas in global health. Among the oddball lineup are proposals to engineer corn into an edible vaccine, use unmanned drones to deliver vaccines to remote areas, and create an electronic tattoo to monitor the health of pregnant women and their fetuses.
The projects with a local connection fall on the more conventional end of the spectrum, but could help save premature babies and improve vaccine programs in the developing world if they come to fruition.
Each of the grant recipients gets $100,000 to figure out if their proposal has a chance of flying. A lucky few may go on to win $1 million in follow-up funding if the work shows promise. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation committed $100 million to the Grand Challenges Explorations program, a five-year effort now entering its fourth year. The goal is to cast a wide net for approaches that wouldn’t otherwise be funded, and to bring new minds to bear on the problems of the developing world.
Kathleen Bongiovanni’s brainstorm fit the bill. “It’s a little bit off the wall.”
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As a project manager at Seattle Children’s Research Institute, Bongiovanni’s work is mostly administrative. But global health is her passion, and the scientists she works with focus on boosting survival for preemies around the world.
Babies born with underdeveloped lungs have to fight for every breath, and many lose the battle or suffer permanent damage. But in rural clinics in Africa or India, health workers often can’t tell which infants should be placed on respirators or sent to a hospital for more intensive care.
Bongiovanni thinks that triage can be done quickly and cheaply by examining the fluid that’s routinely suctioned out of a baby’s mouth and nose within a few seconds of birth.
All the health worker would have to do is put a few milliliters in a test tube, add a dash of alcohol and shake. If the fluid forms a froth, that means the baby’s lungs are strong. Meager bubbles show the lungs aren’t mature enough to produce a slippery coating that keeps tiny air sacs from collapsing.
With the Gates money, Bongiovanni plans to test her approach on newborns at a Texas hospital, and work with a team in Uganda to see if the procedure would be acceptable there.
Lauren Franzel’s idea is too big to field test with $100,000, but the money will allow her to research what it would take to bring bar-code technology to the developing world’s antiquated system of vaccine distribution and tracking. Many countries still rely on paper ledgers; and the result is lost shipments, shortages and drugs that spoil before they get to patients.
Franzel analyzes vaccine supply and demand for the Seattle nonprofit PATH. With new, more expensive vaccines against pneumonia and diarrhea coming on the market, countries will have a bigger stake in making sure that nothing is lost or wasted, she said.
Vaccines are the subject of the other Seattle grant, to a team at PATH who came up with a better way to maintain a “just-right” temperature for the drugs: not too hot, and not too cold. That’s a challenge in countries where vaccines often are delivered to local clinics by couriers on bicycle or foot, carrying small Igloo-type coolers.
Ice packs tucked into the coolers to keep the drugs from sweltering can actually turn them into Popsicles. Shawn McGuire and Nancy Muller designed an insert made from a type of high-tech material that can reliably buffer the vaccines from temperature swings and prevent freezing.
The team already is working with a manufacturer in India to incorporate the liner into its coolers. With the Gates funding, they will be able to recruit other manufacturers and test their design to see how well it works in the real world.
“You have no idea how exciting it was to our team to get this grant,” Muller said. “It’s recognition that this is an idea that has merit.”
But even the Gates Foundation admits most of the ideas won’t pan out. The hope is that a few will, and will be transformative, the foundation’s former global-health chief said when he announced the program’s creation in 2007.
Sandi Doughton: 206-464-2491 or firstname.lastname@example.org