Tricking the mosquito’s “nose”
A Grand Challenge to combat malaria
Zwiebel, professor of Biological Sciences at Vanderbilt University, was among 30 “vector biologists” summoned to Seattle to advise members of a blue-ribbon scientific panel on a major new initiative they were planning.
Vector biologists study insects and other agents that spread infectious diseases. Zwiebel’s “vector” is the Anopheles gambiae mosquito, which transmits malaria, and his goal is to understand the insect’s olfactory system at the molecular level.
Six months earlier, Bill and Melinda Gates had decided to use the extraordinary resources of their foundation—some $27 billion—to make a major impact on global health, and to do so in an extraordinarily aggressive manner.
A major component of this effort would be a “Grand Challenges in Global Health” initiative to catalyze scientific breakthroughs against the diseases that kill millions of people each year in the world’s poorest countries.
The initiative had been launched with a $200 million Gates grant to the Foundation for the National Institutes of Health (NIH), which fosters public-private partnerships to improve health through scientific discovery.
To ensure it got the biggest bang for its megabucks, a 22-member board of distinguished scientists chaired by Nobel laureate and former NIH Director Harold Varmus, M.D., had asked top experts in a number of related fields to come to Seattle for a brainstorming session.
“The atmosphere was almost somber,” Zwiebel recalls. “They made it clear that this was a very important challenge, one that they took very seriously.”
During the three-day meeting, Zwiebel and his colleagues were divided into working groups. Each group was asked to come up with a consensus set of suggestions. Board members apparently liked what his group had produced because many of its suggestions were incorporated into the final 14 “challenges” announced in October 2003.
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