Sometimes, when it comes to obtaining research funding, the crazier, the better. That seems to be the common thread in projects funded by the Gates Foundation recently as part of its Grand Challenges Explorations initiative. Touted in a jaunty ad ("One great idea. Two pages to fill out. $100,000 to prove it."), this grant program is designed to spur innovation in global health by inviting scientists to send in ideas that fall outside the usual scientific paradigm — those maverick stepchildren that scientists usually don't show to funding agencies.
Can green fluorescent protein prevent the flu? Can mosquitoes deliver vaccines through their bites instead of diseases? Can microorganisms be induced to be "living antibiotics" that hunt down disease-causing bacteria?
These and other assorted unorthodoxy were among the 104 projects funded for one year with $100,000, including grants to five local researchers. Dr. Keith Jerome, a researcher at the University of Washington and the Fred Hutchison Cancer Research Center, received funding for an idea that could cure HIV. He targets a core difficulty in dealing with an HIV infection: The virus originally inserts itself into the genome of a person, and from there replicates itself. Current treatments go after these copies in the bloodstream, but leave the embedded HIV untouched. Jerome wants to use proteins called "homing endonucleases" to locate and excise the intruder's DNA, eliminating the original source of the infection.
Scientists are brimming with ideas, but they spend an inordinate amount of time getting funding for only a very few of them — usually the ones sure to work. True, the National Institutes of Health has its own version of an innovation-spurring grant that considers riskier proposals, but it is lumbering where the Explorations grant is lithe: Applications can span up to 15 pages, and it can take an entire year to find out whether you're getting any money. At two pages and with a three-month turnaround time, the Explorations grant from the Gates Foundation lowers the risk from the scientist's end, and enriches the chances for finding a quirky notion that can transform global health in the future.