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The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is to give US$200 million to identify the 'grand challenges' facing global health and to fund research to address these problems.

The aim of the initiative is to focus the attention of the scientific community on tackling diseases that affect developing countries, such as malaria and AIDS. At present, only 10 per cent of medical research is devoted to diseases that cause 90 per cent of ill-health worldwide.

Microsoft head Bill Gates unveiled the plan on Sunday (26 January) at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. "There is great potential for science and technology to solve persistent global health challenges, but far greater resources are needed," he said. "By accelerating research to overcome scientific obstacles in AIDS, malaria and other diseases, millions of lives could be saved."

To start, an international panel of leading scientists — chaired by Nobel Laureate and president of the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York, Harold Varmus — will identify a set of critical life-endangering problems that could be helped by research.

After these priorities have been published later this year, the initiative will ask scientists from around the world to apply for grants of up to US$20 million to search for solutions to each of the challenges. The grants — which will be administered by the US Foundation for the National Institutes of Health — will be awarded mainly to coalitions of researchers from different institutions and disciplines, although individual scientists are also eligible.

"We will strive to create an unprecedented synergy, focused on engaging the best scientific minds of our time, maximising the impact of our respective resources, and thus spurring creativity and innovation in this field for the ultimate benefit of all humankind," said Elias Zerhouni, director of the US National Institutes of Health and a member of the initiative's scientific panel.

Gates said that the Grand Challenges in Global Health Initiative had been inspired by a German mathematician, David Hilbert, who in 1900 challenged the mathematics community to solve a set of 23 problems. Defining these 'grand challenges' spurred mathematicians around the world to redouble their efforts. Gates hopes that his new initiative will do the same for global health science.

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