updated 10/9/2007 1:46:56 PM ET 2007-10-09T17:46:56

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation will commit $100 million over five years to fund fast-track grants for treatments against health challenges facing poor countries.

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"The initiative's goal is to encourage scientists worldwide to explore creative, unorthodox ideas that could lead to major breakthroughs," the foundation said in a statement.

Named the Grand Challenges Explorations initiative, it will support hundreds of early-stage research projects, many pursuing ideas that have never before been tested, and involve scientists from a wide range of disciplines, the foundation said.

Under the initiative, applicants will be asked to submit a short funding proposal, which will be reviewed on a fast-track schedule. Exploration grants will be about $100,000 each, with successful projects eligible for more funding. The first call for proposals will be announced in the first half of 2008, with the first grants expected by fall of 2008.

The Global Health Initiative, founded in 2003, has provided more than $450 million to support global health initiatives since its inception. That program has focused mostly on research projects on AIDS and malaria, both of which are key focuses of the foundation in Africa.

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation itself has an endowment of about $32 billion from its founders and another estimated $31 billion coming from Warren Buffett, who announced last year he would be giving much of his wealth to the foundation.

Public funding for worldwide programs targeting AIDS, malaria and other diseases afflicting mostly poor nations has been tight, and there have been some recent high-profile failures from private industry.

In September, Merck & Co. halted a study, partly funded by the National Institutes of Health, on an experimental AIDS vaccine. The international study on the developing vaccine failed.

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