Monday, May 24, 2010

Can You Smell Malaria?

By Loren Becker, Global Health Program Analyst, FasterCures

Scientists at Penn State University think you can and they are developing a diagnostic test that detects a unique odor emitted by even asymptomatic malaria patients. A German research team is trying to create a vaccine delivery platform that activates when it comes into contact with human sweat. Who comes up with these novel, transformative ideas? They emerge when you incentivize creative, nontraditional solutions to age-old challenges.

There are no stupid ideas when developing a strategy to fight ancient diseases like malaria, recently identified as the cause of King Tut’s death, or tuberculosis, which has been found in 9,000-year-old skeletons. That is the basis for the Gates Foundation’s Grand Challenges Explorations program, whose most recent grants were announced May 10. Awarded twice a year, the $100,000 grants are meant to provide creative problem solvers with enough funding to figure out whether their crazy theories could actually work. If successful, grantees could be eligible for up to $1 million more to further develop their ideas.

The Grand Challenges Explorations program is a great example of how foundations and philanthropists are able to take risks that private companies and governments frequently avoid, a theme that often emerges in our medical philanthropy work at FasterCures. Unburdened by the demands of shareholders or legislative mandates, philanthropic donors have the flexibility to fund high risk, high reward research that disproportionately accelerates the pace of innovation.

Even as the Gates Foundation announced this round of grants, applications were rolling in for the fifth round, which will be awarded in November. We are always excited to see what transformative idea will receive funding next in an environment where scientists are encouraged to think outside the box in proposing solutions.

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