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UC San Diego Researchers Receive Grants from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation

 “Grand Challenges Explorations” grants for innovative global health research will fund novel malaria research; innovative method to boost flu vaccines

October 20, 2009  |  

Funding for three research projects at the University of California, San Diego School of Medicine are among the 76 grants announced by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in the third funding round of Grand Challenges Explorations, an initiative to help scientists around the world explore bold and largely unproven ways to improve health in developing countries.  The grants were provided to scientists in 16 countries on five continents.

To receive funding, the investigators showed in a two-page application how their ideas fall outside current scientific paradigms and might lead to significant advances in global health.  The initiative is highly competitive, receiving almost 3,000 proposals in this round.  Two of the three, $100,000 grants to UC San Diego will support novel research at to help develop new weapons in the fight to eradicate malaria. The third will fund a novel idea to test whether exercise can enhance the efficacy of vaccinations in patients with compromised immune systems.

Team with mosquitos

L-R  Joe Vinetz, MD; Jennifer Black, MD; Kailash Patra, PhD; and Catriona Jamieson, MD, PhD with mosquitos

Malaria, one of the leading causes of death in developing countries, is transmitted by mosquitoes in tropical areas around the globe.  Each year, there are approximately 350 to 500 millions cases of malaria, killing close to one million people.  Every day, malaria takes the lives of 2,000 children in Africa alone, where the most lethal form of the malaria parasite, Plasmodium falciparum, is found.

The first grant – to post-doctoral researcher Kailash Patra, PhD, Joseph Vinetz, MD, professor of medicine in the Division of Infectious Disease, and Philip Felgner, PhD, professor and Director of Protein Microarry Laboratory, University of California, Irvine – will facilitate the search for new P. falciparum transmission-blocking candidates that could be naturally boosted during malaria infection.  Such targets would allow development of a vaccine designed to maintain immunity in the human host after a single injection by preventing the development of malaria parasites inside the mosquito.

Discovery of a protein that allows an increased protective response after infection would eliminate the need for multiple vaccinations that are neither feasible nor practical in resource-limited countries.

A second grant will provide support for development of a mouse model of human malaria by a multidisciplinary team: Vinetz, Catriona Jamieson, MD, PhD assistant professor of medicine and Director for Stem Cell Research with post-doctoral fellow Jennifer Black, MD, at the UCSD Moores Center, and Inder M. Verma, PhD, Professor, Irwin Mark Jacobs Chair in Exemplary Life Science and American Cancer Society Professor at the Salk Institute. This model will serve as a new tool for evaluating strategies to fight the disease, including testing critically needed new anti-malarial drugs and vaccines as well as testing for long-term toxicity of anti-malarial therapies.

“Our goal is to develop a model for the disease which faithfully reconstitutes the complete life cycle of human-infecting Plasmodium parasites,” said Vinetz.  “Our approach is unconventional in that we are incorporating human stem cells into the model, and creative because it brings together a disparate group of researchers – a malaria expert with field experience, a stem-cell biologist working in blood disorders, and a molecular biologist who has previously developed other mouse models capable of modeling human infectious diseases.”

The third UC San Diego grant went to post-doctoral researcher Kate Edwards in the Behavioral Medicine Program, Department of Psychiatry for her proposal to use a brief bout of acute exercise as a novel adjuvant for pneumonia vaccines.  Adjuvants act to increase the efficacy of a vaccine response by stimulating the innate immune system, which provides for the rapid first-line defense against infection.

Based on Edwards’ previous, published studies that successfully demonstrated that a single bout of intense exercise pre-vaccination enhances the antibody responses of various vaccines, she proposes to test the effects of exercise as an adjuvant for pneumonia vaccines in young adults.  If successful, the next phase would be to test the effects of a short bout of exercise in HIV-positive individuals.

“Utilizing exercise to boost vaccines holds many advantages,” said Edwards. “Exercise is inexpensive, requires little training and is easily implementable.  If we find this helps patients with compromised immune systems, it could not only lead to more complete protection from disease, but might also allow the use of smaller doses of vaccine with the same efficacy – thus greatly reducing the cost of vaccination programs in the developing world.”

“The winners of these grants show the bold thinking we need to tackle some of the world’s greatest health challenges,” said Dr. Tachi Yamada, president of the Gates Foundation’s Global Health Program. “I’m excited about their ideas and look forward to seeing some of these exploratory projects turn into life-saving breakthroughs.”

About Grand Challenges Explorations

Grand Challenges Explorations is a five-year, $100 million initiative of the Gates Foundation to promote innovation in global health.  The program uses an agile, streamlined grant process – applications are limited to two pages, and preliminary data are not required.  Proposals are reviewed and selected by a committee of foundation staff and external experts, and grant decisions are made within approximately three months of the close of the funding round.

Applications for the current round of Grand Challenges Explorations are being accepted through November 2, 2009. 



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Media Contact: Debra Kain, 619-543-6163,

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