By Mark Dwortzan
The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has awarded Professor James J. Collins (BME, MSE, SE) a Grand Challenges Explorations grant to encourage his lab’s pursuit of a novel approach to cholera prevention.
In their proposed project, Collins and two postdoctoral fellows in his lab, Ewen Cameron and Peter Belenky, seek to use synthetic biology techniques to engineer a probiotic yogurt bacterium, Lactobacillus gasseri, to detect and kill the cholera bacterium, Vibrio cholerae, in the human intestine. The probiotic could be supplied as an inexpensive, freeze-dried powder to endemic populations to prevent cholera, an acute, food or water-borne diarrheal infection leading to more than 100,000 deaths each year.
“We are delighted to be selected for the Gates Foundation program,” said Collins. “This funding will enable us to explore using innovative synthetic biology approaches to detect and treat cholera infections, a major health problem facing many poor communities in the world, including those in Haiti that were devastated by the 2010 earthquake.”
The Gates Foundation’s Grand Challenges Explorations program funds promising early-stage projects offering novel solutions to global health problems. Initial grants of $100,000 are awarded two times a year, and successful projects are eligible for a follow-on grant of up to $1 million. Collins’ project is one of 15 to be funded by an eighth-round Grand Challenges Explorations grant to apply synthetic biology techniques to health challenges impacting the developing world. Researchers are increasingly using these techniques to design and assemble new biological components (such as enzymes, genetic circuits, metabolic networks and the like) and systems or redesign natural biological systems to perform specific tasks aimed at diagnosing, managing and treating disease.
The Grand Challenges Explorations grants are funded by the Gates Foundation’s Grand Challenges in Global Health initiative, which supports researchers pursuing bold and unconventional scientific and technological solutions to major health problems in the developing world. Launched in 2008, more than 700 Grand Challenge Explorations grants have been awarded to innovative, early-stage projects in 45 countries. The Gates Foundation has committed $100 million to encourage scientists and engineers worldwide to expand the pipeline of ideas to fight our greatest health challenges.
Another Boston University recipient of a Gates Grand Challenges Explorations grant, BU School of Medicine Assistant Professor of Medicine and Microbiology Lisa Ganley-Leal, will collaborate with Pauline Mwinzi of Epsilon Therapeutics, Inc. to test a new business model for selling vaccines through medicine shops in emerging markets.