Gates Foundation Provides Seed Money for UNC Researchers’ Germ of an Idea
Vyas Sharma, PhD (left), and David Lawrence, PhD.
Researchers at the UNC Eshelman School of Pharmacy have received a Grand Challenges Explorations grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation for an idea that could see a tiny seed, a bit of saliva and a few tweaks to a hormone create a simple test for diagnosing diseases of the developing world, such as malaria, tuberculosis and African sleeping sickness.
David Lawrence, PhD, and Vyas Sharma, PhD, of the UNC Eshelman School of Pharmacy received one of seventy-eight grants recently announced by the foundation in the fourth funding round of Grand Challenges Explorations, an initiative to help scientists around the world explore bold and largely unproven ways to improve health in developing countries.
Lawrence and Sharma will use a seed from a plant commonly used in biological research. The plant has been modified so that its seeds must be given a hormone before they will germinate. The two scientists believe they can create different versions, or analogs, of the needed hormone that will become active only in the presence of a specific disease-causing organism. Their idea is to create trays with multiple compartments, each containing a seed, some nutrients and a variation of the inactive hormone attuned to a specific disease.
“Imagine a small school many miles away from the nearest electricity and the teacher has received a package of these containers,” Lawrence said. “They’re handed out to the students, and the students are told to do something kids love to do: spit.”
If any of the saliva carries biological markers that indicate the presence of a disease-causing organism, the hormone will become active and the seed will grow, Lawrence said. At least that’s the idea.
The foundation will initially fund the project for one year for $100,000. If Lawrence and Sharma can show results in the lab, the funding could be continued and increased tenfold. Creating low cost diagnostics for priority global health conditions is one of the areas into which the foundation directs resources.
“In the developing world, conclusively diagnosing illness is difficult because today’s diagnostic tests are expensive or unavailable,” Sharma said. “A low-cost test that doesn’t depend on advanced infrastructure would work everywhere.”
“We thought back to ancient times. What were they using?” said Sharma. The idea of using seeds as a diagnostic tool came from an ancient Egyptian papyrus describing a pregnancy test that instructs women to “water” a bag of wheat and a bag of barley. If they both grow, she will bear a child, accordingw to the text.
“That ancient test associated germination with the maternal hormones present in urine,” Sharma said. “That got us thinking when we were looking for ways to apply chemical biology to a global health problem.”
Lawrence thought that a project using seeds would be ideal. “Seeds are easy to transport, are stable for long periods of time and respond to many external signals,” he said. “They’re miniature biochemical factories in a convenient easy-to-carry package.”
Lawrence points out that if he and Sharma are successful in developing a low-cost, low-tech diagnostic tool, its usefulness would not be limited to the remote areas of the world or to detecting only exotic diseases.
“Simple, cheap and accurate tests would be of great value here in the U.S. and in North Carolina,” Lawrence said. “We could potentially put these diagnostic tools in the hands of doctors, pharmacists, social workers and even consumers themselves.”
Grand Challenges Explorations is a five-year, $100 million initiative of the Gates Foundation to promote innovation in global health. The program uses an agile, streamlined grant process – applications are limited to two pages, and preliminary data are not required. Proposals are reviewed and selected by a committee of foundation staff and external experts, and grant decisions are made within approximately three months of the close of the funding round.
To receive funding, Lawrence and Sharma showed in a two-page application how their idea falls outside current scientific paradigms and might lead to significant advances in global health. The initiative is highly competitive, receiving almost 2,700 proposals in this round.
More information is available at http://www.grandchallenges.org/explorations.
Lawrence is the Fred Eshelman Distinguished Professor in the School’s division of medicinal chemistry and natural products and holds joint appointments in the department of chemistry, the department of pharmacology of the UNC School of Medicine, and the Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center. Sharma is a research assistant professor at the School.