The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation heard so many creative new ideas when it asked scientists around the world to share their "blue sky" global health projects that the foundation decided to hand out almost twice as much money as initially planned.
In all, 104 scientists in 22 countries will be getting $100,000 each to do some initial research on an unusual approach to preventing or curing diseases like AIDS or tuberculosis, or tackling another problem in global health such as drug resistance.
Dr. Tachi Yamada, president of global health at the Gates Foundation, was set to announce the first round of its Grand Challenges Explorations grants at a global health meeting in Bangkok on Wednesday.
"The quality of the applications exceeded all of our expectations," Yamada said in a statement before the grants were announced.
The new program is expected to last five years. Ideas for the second round of grants are due at the foundation's Web site by Nov. 2. The Gates Foundation was created in 2000 by the Microsoft chairman and his wife. Besides an endowment of about $32 billion from its founders, another estimated $31 billion is coming from Warren Buffett, chairman and chief executive of Berkshire Hathaway.
The winning ideas in the first round range well outside the limit of current global health research: from exploring a possible connection between HIV and the genetic markers for type 2 diabetes to developing a flashlight that would stop malaria transmission by disrupting wavelengths.
Finding new ideas
The grants will go to researchers in 25 U.S. states, but the biggest concentration of awards will go to five scientists at the University of Washington.
The projects that show some solid potential after the first year of research will be rewarded with bigger grants of $1 million or more, said Melissa Derry, a Gates Foundation program officer for global health policy and advocacy.
"We're making lots of small bets," Derry said. "We'll narrow it down in the next phase."
Derry said Yamada's feeling about the program can be summed up as: You don't know what you don't know.
"You have to look under every rock," she said. "You have to make sure you look in every place imaginable to find new ideas."
She said the foundation has been thrilled with the response to its requests for proposals and was particularly happy that 15 percent of the grant applications came from countries other than the United States.
One grant recipient said the flood of ideas — 4,000 in the first round of grant proposals — shows the foundation has clued into a reality of scientific research.
If no one is willing to take a risk on new ideas, most people will continue to focus on the same old approaches, said Tayyaba Hasan, a research professor at Harvard University.
"Most people will agree that there's a need for some sense of adventure in science," she said on the telephone from a meeting in London.
Hasan hopes to apply some new technology — photodynamic therapy, in which a light source such as a laser is used to activate a chemical compound to kill diseased cells — in a newer way.
The therapy is currently being used for combating blindness and several kinds of cancer. Hasan thinks it may also work for fighting visceral leishmaniasis or black fever, a little-known disease that causes about 500,000 deaths a year.
Hasan, who was born in India, said most of her 25-year career has focused on cancer research but she would like to use her knowledge and ideas to also help people in poorer parts of the world.
In addition to testing the effectiveness of photodynamic therapy for treating leishmaniasis, Hasan said she would also focus on finding cheaper ways to do the therapy, such as by using a light source other than a laser.