New funding focuses on innovation in global health

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation announced a new grants program called the Grand Challenges Explorations Initiative at the Keystone Symposium on the Challenges of Global Vaccine Development, held October 8-13 in Cape Town, South Africa (see Giving it their best shot). This initiative will foster innovative approaches to the greatest global health challenges by funding academic or independent research and discovery efforts in several areas of public health.

The Gates Foundation has committed US$100 million to the program over the next five years and will issue grants of $100,000 to selected applicants with the aim of encouraging the best minds to explore novel approaches to the world's greatest health challenges. "This is not about making money; this is not about publishing," said Tachi Yamada of the Gates Foundation. "It's about delivering to patients."

This initiative will also attempt to break down the interdisciplinary boundaries of research. "Innovation is a word that is misused by most," said Yamada. "They mean what I'm doing, not what you're doing."

Another guiding principle of the Explorations program is speed. Applications require no advanced data and are limited to two pages. They will be reviewed quickly and grants will be delivered within three months. The initial target areas for the grants will be announced early next year and proposals, which will be reviewed by experts in the areas of science and technology, will be accepted starting early- to mid-2008. Grantees will be expected to take on big questions and big risks and share information as soon as it's available, according to Yamada.

In September, IAVI launched a $10 million initiative focusing specifically on AIDS vaccine research and development. This program, known as the Innovation Fund, will identify and fund small- and medium-sized biotechnology companies working on innovative technologies that may have applications in AIDS vaccine research. The need for pioneering approaches to AIDS vaccine design became even more apparent after Merck's leading candidate, MRKAd5, failed to provide any degree of protection against HIV infection or to control viral load in individuals who became HIV-infected despite vaccination in a large Phase IIb test-of-concept trial called the STEP study (see Spotlightarticle).

"Let's face it, 25 years after the advent of HIV/AIDS and there's still no vaccine," said Yamada. "As a funder of this work we have to be willing to fail. But when we have success, we should be ready to invest very, very heavily in that success." —By Kristen Jill Kresge