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Tuesday, June 28, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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$50 million for local scientists

Seattle Times medical reporter

Seattle scientists are receiving nearly $50 million toward research aimed at protecting the world's most vulnerable people from malaria — one of the leading killers on the globe — and to develop a quick blood test to check people for a variety of diseases while still in the field.

The grants to researchers at Seattle Biomedical Research Institute (SBRI) and the University of Washington are among 43 awards announced yesterday by the Grand Challenges in Global Health Initiative, a project with major funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Nearly $437 million is being awarded so far to scientists in 33 countries for research to improve health in developing nations. Projects range from vaccine development and developing more-nutritious crops to controlling insects that spread disease.

"We were overwhelmed by the scientific community's response to the Grand Challenges," Dr. Harold Varmus, chairman of the initiative's advisory board, said in a statement. More than 1,500 requests for funding were received.

"Clearly, there's untapped potential among the world's scientists to address diseases of the developing world."

The initiative is funded by $450 million from the Gates Foundation; $27.1 million from the Wellcome Trust, a London-based charity that funds health research; and $4.5 million from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, a Canadian government agency. More grants — on top of the $437 million announced yesterday — will be awarded later this year, a foundation spokesman said.

Decisions on which projects would be funded have been two years in coming. Scientific advisers settled on more than a dozen challenges that, if met, would have the best chance of improving health in the developing world.

In Seattle, SBRI researchers received two grants, totaling $32.5 million, for projects aimed at developing a malaria vaccine. The mosquito-borne disease kills more than 1 million people a year, about 90 percent of them children in Africa.

"It is hard for people who aren't here to understand what a grip malaria has on communities and how widespread it is in Africa," SBRI scientist Patrick Duffy said from Tanzania, where researchers are trying to learn which malaria parasites affect children the worst. "It is our dream to contribute to a solution."

Duffy, the principal investigator on the project, and his colleagues have conducted previous research that showed a specific form of the malaria parasite causes the disease in pregnant women. During their pregnancies, women develop antibodies and, eventually, natural immunity to malaria.

The researchers have made progress toward developing a vaccine using the pieces of protein from that particular type of malaria.

A new project, which received $19 million from the Grand Challenges program, will try to identify the forms of malaria parasite that cause the most severe disease in children. Some children who manage to survive about two years of malaria also develop natural immunity. So, like in the other research, it's hoped proteins from those parasites could be used to develop a vaccine, Duffy said.

"My guess is that based on the pregnancy studies, it is a good hypothesis," said Duffy, who is collaborating with scientists from Tanzania, Denmark, and Brown University in the United States.

In the second SBRI study, vaccine studies previously conducted on mice will be conducted on humans.

In earlier work, Stefan Kappe and his colleagues found that removing certain genes from a malaria parasite caused it to hang up in the mice livers, so it couldn't enter red blood cells to destroy them and cause devastating fever and anemia. While the parasite was in the liver, the mice developed antibodies and were protected from additional infection.

Now armed with a $13.5 million Grand Challenges grant, Kappe and other scientists will use the technique in the malaria species that affects humans, Plasmodium falciparum. He will expand the research in mice for three years, then move to human volunteers in the following two years.

Kappe will collaborate with scientists at the Walter Reed Institute of Research in Washington, D.C., and with researchers in Germany and Australia.

At the UW, Paul Yager, a professor of bioengineering, and colleagues will use a $15.4 million grant to develop a handheld device for blood tests.

In remote areas of Africa and other places, there are no facilities for crucial tests for disease. So health workers would place a patient's blood on a credit-card-size test panel, then load the card into the new device to get readings within minutes that would reveal conditions ranging from bacterial infections and nutritional status to HIV.

The technology would help patients get treatment faster and warn of potential outbreaks of highly contagious diseases such as SARS.

"Depending on the test, workers could see if they might need to institute a quarantine," Yager said.

PATH, the Seattle-based organization that develops health technologies for developing countries, is helping guide the project. Also collaborating in the research are Micronics of Redmond and Nanogen of San Diego, both developers of medical diagnostics.

Warren King: 206-464-2247 or wking@seattletimes.com

Nanogen, Inc. is headquartered in San Diego, and Micronics Inc. is headquartered in Redmond. An earlier version of this story reversed the locations.

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company

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