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Chewing gum, chocolate to fight malaria?

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Gates Foundation grants support unusual research.The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation on Tuesday announced new grants of US$$100,000 each for 76 unconventional approaches to world problems, such as the idea of using chewing gum to detect malaria biomarkers in saliva. Another will give a researcher at Weill Cornell Medical College in New York the money he needs to test chocolate for combating the malaria parasite. Andrew Fung, the UCLA doctoral candidate working on the malaria test, admits his idea for an inexpensive and noninvasive new way to detect malaria started out as an intellectual exercise designed to showcase his creativity for a potential post-doctorate employer. He was hoping for a job, not a research grant. He may get both. Fung’s idea was built on the need for a malaria test that does not require a blood draw and on research using saliva for detecting other diseases. On the plus side: Saliva is relatively easy to collect, the process is painless and the gum test doesn’t require a battery or computer to run. On the negative side: Saliva isn’t as “clean” as blood and biomarkers aren’t as prevalent in saliva as they are in blood. And since children would be a primary target of this new test, the researchers may also have some problems getting the gum away from the kids before they swallow it or hide it away. The biomedical engineer chuckles at the issues involved in working with kids and is clearly delighted the Gates Foundation thought his unconventional idea was worth exploring. “Very few organisations are willing to invest into that space,” said Fung. Tuesday’s announcement is the third round of the Gates Foundation’s Grand Challenges Exploration programme to support innovative, unconventional global health research. The five-year health research grants are designed to encourage scientists to pursue bold ideas that could lead to breakthroughs, focusing on ways to prevent and treat infectious diseases, such as HIV, malaria, tuberculosis, pneumonia and diarrhoeal diseases. Nearly 3,000 proposals came in for the third round of grants. Dr Tachi Yamada, president of the Gates Foundation’s Global Health Programme, says the foundation hopes this grant programme will someday produce a breakthrough idea that could save untold numbers of lives. This year’s 76 grants will go to researchers from 16 countries trying to answer a wide variety of questions: Can a brief bout of exercise enhance the efficiency of the pneumococcal vaccine? Can you diagnose tuberculosis by analyzing breath samples?

Should vaccines be administered under the tongue? Unconventional science is what attracted Steven Maranz to the Grand Challenges Exploration programme. The Weill Cornell Medical College researcher thought he would be a good match for the Gates Foundation programme because many of his ideas are outside the norm. “Because of my background, I usually see things a bit different from most researchers,” said the American who grew up in Brazil and Africa with his anthropologist father and his mother who specialised in native language literacy. He earned his undergraduate degree in English literature, but since then has specialised in plant chemistry. Maranz’s plan to look at the effect of chocolate on the malaria parasite may sound a little strange but it’s based on conventional science. Maranz had been studying medicinal plants from West Africa and testing them to see how they affect the malaria parasite. Both current and past drugs effective at killing the malaria parasite were based on compounds that come from plants. Since the malaria parasite has developed, over time, resistance to the drugs used to treat people, Maranz doesn’t want to kill the parasite. He wants to find ways to interrupt its lifecycle in other ways. Chocolate is a promising substance for malaria research because it binds with cholesterol and takes it out of circulation. Since the malaria parasite feeds on fat in the blood, if you take away the fat, you starve the parasite, Maranz said. Maranz wants to kill some of the parasites but leave enough in the blood to help children develop a lifetime resistance to malaria. He will be looking at several different compounds but he thinks chocolate is the best candidate because it is rich in the right elements and is known to be safe. His chocolate “medicine” will be delivered in a liquid form, similar to hot chocolate, because the cocoa in most chocolate bars has been altered with most of its helpful elements removed. The scientist is quick to point out that although he feels confident of his idea, it’s still an unproven hypothesis. “This is an exploration grant. The ideas I’ve been talking to you about need experimental support. Nothing is proven at this point,” said Maranz, speaking for himself and all the other scientists receiving Grand Challenges grants. news from bt.com.bn

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