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Divisions Faculty Pharmacoengineering and Molecular Pharmaceutics Research,
Grayson Mendenhall
November 9, 2010

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has awarded a $100,000 Grand Challenges Explorations grant to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill to fund a pharmacy researcher’s efforts to halt pathogens invading the body by stopping them in the mucous membranes.

Samuel Lai, PhD, an assistant professor in the UNC Eshelman School of Pharmacy, had his project selected as one of sixty-five grants announced by the Gates Foundation in the fifth 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. The grants were provided to scientists in sixteen countries on five continents.

To receive funding, Lai showed in a two-page application how his idea falls outside current scientific paradigms and might lead to significant advances in global health. The initiative is highly competitive, receiving more than 2,400 proposals in this round.

“Fighting viruses after they have reached their targets for infection is like trying to defend a castle by locking the interior doors but leaving the gate open,” Lai said. “We can fend off viruses much better if we could just close the front gate.”

Most infections do not begin in the blood or enter through undamaged skin. Instead, they are transmitted at exposed mucosal surfaces such as the pulmonary, gastrointestinal and reproductive tracts, Lai said. That makes mucus—the slimy and sticky secretions that line mucosal surfaces—the first line of defense against pathogens such as viruses. Despite the importance of mucous membranes in protecting against foreign substances, few people have thought to take advantage of mucus in developing methods to prevent infections, Lai said.

“Even though viruses must penetrate mucus to infect our body, how viruses behave in mucus has often been ignored,” he said. “Perhaps it is because some consider it to be yucky or gross.”

By better understanding how viruses can be trapped in mucus secretions, Lai says he believes it might be possible to develop better methods pf preventing the spread of infections by, for example, developing new microbicides or improving the effectiveness of vaccines.

Finding better ways to block infections is of particular importance because many viral infections, such as HIV and herpes, cannot be cured once established, Lai said. Together with Richard Cone, PhD, a professor of biophysics at Johns Hopkins University, Lai will explore whether it is possible to protect against infections in animals by trapping and immobilizing viruses and other pathogens in the mucus secretions.

The Gates Foundation will initially fund the project for one year for $100,000. If Lai and his team can show progress in the lab, the funding could continue and increase tenfold.

Video: Sam Lai discusses his research

About Grand Challenges Explorations

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.

The next round of Grand Challenges Explorations will open in March 2011. More information, including grant application instructions and a list of topics for which proposals will be accepted, will be available at

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