Gates Foundation Gets Jiggy

October 29th, 2008 | Sources: Washington Post

As part of its Grand Challenges Explorations program, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has awarded 104 grants in the amount of $100,000 to fund some of the wilder ideas to come from medical researchers in years.

How wild are they? Hiroyuki Matsuoka believes mosquitoes can be recruited into flying syringes that deliver vaccines rather than diseases. Nobel Prize winner Andrew Fire thinks it’s possible to fight viral infections by deactivating a single gene, and another researcher wants to develop “stealth weapons” against HIV.

The Gates foundation rarely funds fringe ideas like this, but the concept behind the program is similar to that used by venture capitalists: if one or two of the funded ideas bear fruit, the entire investment may prove worthwhile. 

The 2-page online application did not require lengthy arguments or data to support a hypothesis, only a legitimate way to test it. And the selection process did not involve peer review. That’s because, “peer review-by definition almost excludes innovation because innovation has no peers,” Tadataka Yamada, the Foundation’s Director of Global Health told the Washington Post.

Yamada ought to know. A gastroenterologist by training, he ridiculed a hypothesis put forth by Australian researchers Robin Warren and Barry Marshall that peptic ulcers were caused by bacteria rather than stomach acid. Marshall eventually swallowed a carafe of the bacteria to prove his point, and nearly died from an ulcer before being cured with antibiotics.

The Australian pair won the Nobel Prize a few years later.


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