Campus & Community

Gates Foundation awards two Harvard investigators $26 million

4 min read

Grants aim to advance global health

David Edwards (left), Gordon McKay Professor of the Practice of Biomedical Engineering, and Christopher J.L. Murray, Richard Saltonstall Professor of Population Policy in the Harvard School of Public Health, are Gates Foundation grant recipients. (Staff photo Rose Lincoln/Harvard News Office)

Harvard investigators researching a needle-free tuberculosis vaccine and new ways to gather public health information in developing countries received major boosts from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in the form of $26 million in two separate grants.

The grants are among 43 given to researchers around the world investigating the Gates Foundation’s “Grand Challenges in Global Health” – 14 scientific challenges whose solutions promise to make major improvements in the health of millions of people in the developing world.

The grants went to David Edwards, Gordon McKay Professor of the Practice of Biomedical Engineering in the Division of Engineering and Applied Sciences, and to Christopher J.L. Murray, Richard Saltonstall Professor of Population Policy in the Harvard School of Public Health. Edwards is the lead investigator of a team researching the use of extremely tiny “nanoparticles” to deliver vaccines, and Murray is heading a multination effort to develop more accurate ways to assess the health status of developing world populations.

The $26 million was among $436 million in funding announced in June whose aim is to address the Grand Challenges in Global Health and funded through a $450 million commitment from the Gates Foundation, $27.1 million from the Wellcome Trust, and $4.5 million from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research. The Grand Challenges in Global Health initiative is managed by the three funding organizations and by the Foundation for the National Institutes of Health.

The Grand Challenges in Global Health initiative was created by the Gates Foundation in 2003 to address health problems in the developing world that afflict millions but that draw little attention from researchers and drug designers in the industrialized world.

“It’s shocking how little research is directed toward the diseases of the world’s poorest countries,” Gates Foundation co-Founder Bill Gates said in a statement. “By harnessing the world’s capacity for scientific innovation, I believe we can transform health in the developing world and save millions of lives.”

The effort led by Murray, the “Population Health Metrics Research Consortium Project,” received $18.8 million. The project aims to develop new methods and technology to assess the health status of developing world populations. Murray said that though some problems of the developing world are well known, measurement tools for many others are inappropriate or too expensive.

“Without measurement tools, we end up guessing the size of problems and often guessing trends in diseases and, worst of all, we have to guess whether our control efforts are working,” Murray said.

The project has four main goals: finding better methods to measure adult and child mortality, finding ways to assess cause of death in settings where doctors don’t certify cause of death, learning to identify the unique protein signatures of major diseases so that blood samples taken as part of national surveys can show their prevalence, and using biomarkers to monitor the delivery of immunizations and other interventions in the population.

The project involves researchers from several locations with a wide variety of backgrounds, Murray said, from Johns Hopkins School of Public Health, the University of Queensland, The Broad Institute, Muhimbili Medical College in Tanzania, the International Center for Diarrheal Disease Research in Bangladesh, and on Tanzania’s Pemba Island and on Bohol Island in the Philippines.

Edwards’ vaccination project received $7.6 million from the Grand Challenges initiative. The effort seeks to improve delivery of vaccines for both tuberculosis and diphtheria by replacing needles with an aerosol spray that can be inhaled. The project, Edwards said, is important because the vaccines for both tuberculosis and diphtheria are currently injected and needles can spread the virus responsible for AIDS as well as other infections.

The project seeks to bond the vaccine’s active ingredient to tiny particles – 1/10-millionth the size of a fingernail. The particles would be inhaled as an aerosol spray, taking the vaccine directly to the lungs, which may help increase the vaccine’s effectiveness in the cases of respiratory diseases such as tuberculosis.

“I think our approach can increase the number of people vaccinated in that we potentially remove the barrier of injections,” Edwards said. “In addition, we stand to make vaccines safer.”