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Medical researchers around the world have been asked to identify 10 to 15 “critical scientific and/or technical challenges” which, if solved, could lead to important advances against some of the developing world’s most pressing diseases.

The request has come from Harold Varmus, former director of the US National Institutes of Health (NIH), now the president of the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York, and chairman of the scientific board of ‘Grand Challenges in Global Health’, an initiative launched with US$200 million from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (see Bill Gates gives US$200 to health research).

It is being run jointly with the NIH and the Foundation for the National institutes of Health, a non-profit corporation set up to support the mission of the NIH by fostering collaborative relationships with philanthropy, industry, and academia.

“We are seeking ideas,” says Varmus in a message distributed last Friday. “Specifically, we seek the help of the international health research community in identifying the greatest scientific and technological challenges in global health — the principle current challenges standing in the way of major progress”.

The organisers of the initiative stress that they are not looking for a specific health intervention, but a “discrete scientific or technological innovation which will break through the roadblock that stands between where we are now and where we would like to be in science, medicine, and public health”.

They cite as possible examples a novel way to neutralise HIV “that may be the critical limiting step in developing a preventive vaccine”, a viable way to alter mosquito behaviour or make mosquitoes inhospitable to disease organisms, or a way “to stabilise antigens to heat”, avoiding the need for elaborate procedures to keep them cold.

They also quote a wide range of disciplines from which such innovation may emerge, including immunology and microbiology, genetics, molecular and cellular biology, entomology, agricultural sciences, clinical sciences, epidemiology, population and behavioural sciences, ecology and evolutionary biology.

“Any scientific approach that has the potential to address a Grand Challenge in a novel and potentially powerful way might be supported by the initiative,” say the organisers.

In what Varmus describes as “a novel two-phase approach”, the scientific board will select 10 to 15 of “the most compelling challenges”. The initiative will then offer competitive grants to teams of scientists around the world to search for solutions to each of the challenges.

In announcing the US$200 million grant in January, Richard Klausner, a former head of the National Cancer Institute and now executive director of the global health programme for the Gates Foundation, said that the modern era had seen “incredible innovation” in science and technology, particularly in the area of medical research.

“What’s needed now is new funding to support scientists to articulate and prioritise great scientific challenges, and encourage novel research approaches. It is our hope that this will spur a new field of endeavour called global health science.”

Source: © SciDev.Net 2003

Details about how to submit proposals for adoption as a “Grand Challenge” can be obtained either from, or by contacting [email protected]. All proposals must be received by 15 June 2003.

Related external links:

Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

Foundation for the National Institutes of Health

National Institutes of Health

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