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Gates Foundation gives ND $20 million

Katie Kohler | Tuesday, September 25, 2007

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation awarded a $20 million grant to the University for a five-year research initiative to combat the causes and transmission of malaria – a disease that kills more than one million people each year.

The grant is one of the largest in University history, said Dennis Brown, assistant vice president for news and information.

The research initiative will be directed by Frank Collins, a biological sciences professor and director of Notre Dame’s Center for Global Health and Infectious Diseases.

“Global health is one of the focal points of the Gates Foundation, and they obviously thought Professor Collins’ work was of value,” Brown said.

Collins and his team began working on their proposal nearly a year and a half ago, he said.

“We proposed to do research in something we’re qualified to do … where we can use our strengths to answer important questions.”

The Gates Foundation is known for awarding grants to research institutions, such as universities.

“It is my experience that the foundation funds institutions that have the capacity to do the work,” Collins said.

The Foundation’s grants are usually given to projects that work to reduce inequities in neglected areas, produce measurable results, favor preventative approaches and accelerate the work they are already supporting, according to their Web site. They do not award any individual grants.

After the foundation expressed an interest in Collins’ pre-proposal, he worked with the organization to develop a full proposal with a budget.

“We requested the amount of money that we thought was appropriate,” he said. “We are encouraged to be cost efficient, but we were able to negotiate an amount that would allow us to successfully complete our research.”

Collins’ proposed research is centered on measuring the rate of malaria transmitted by mosquitoes and curbing transmission in the areas of the world hit hardest by the epidemic. Malaria is most prevalent in tropical areas such as Africa, Asia and parts of Latin America.

His research procedure will consist of four main objectives. The first involves evaluating current methods of measuring malaria transmission that can be used to evaluate malaria control strategies.

“We need to develop a set of very reliable measures of transmissions. We will be looking at more than half a dozen ways of measuring malaria and evaluating their relative effectiveness across sites with different transmission intensity,” Collins said. “We will look at a range of malaria endemic environments where transmission rates range from very low, at a few bites per year, to very high, over 100 bites per year.”

Some ways of measuring transmission are more effective than others in different settings, he said. “Our principle aim is to get a sense of how [the methods] work and how they can be used most effectively.”

The second objective deals with evaluating different combinations of existing malaria control tools, such as insecticides and bed nets, in different environments and focuses on cost effective ways of using these tools in different settings.

He hopes to determine which tools work most effectively under different levels of malaria transmission.

“As malaria control is implemented, we’re hoping that the rate of transmission will fall. With this decrease in transmission, it will be important to know whether or not malaria control methods should be changed,” Collins said.

The third objective is concerned with mosquito resistance to insecticides.

“Insecticides are an important tool, but insect resistance compromises the use of insecticides,” he said.

The development of high levels of resistance in a mosquito population is a relatively slow process, Collins said, but it is not well understood.

“Here, we will ask a series of questions on evaluating the impact of control programs on resistance emergence,” he said.

The final objective aims to evaluate the impact of vector behavior on some of the standard approaches to curbing transmission. There are many species of mosquito that transmit malaria and these behaviors affect the level of effectiveness of the preventative measures.

“Many [mosquitoes] tend to bite at night and come indoors and feed on people when they’re asleep,” Collins said. “Here, we can see how insecticides on bed nets may be an effective control strategy.”

This, in turn, affects many parts of the world because malaria is thought to be an outdoor epidemic, Collins said.

“Assessing the impact of the behavior of the mosquito will help us examine transmission more completely and in closer detail,” he said.

Computer science students and faculty from the College of Engineering will play a key role in the project, as well as researchers from the Swiss Tropical Institute, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, the London School of Hygiene Tropical Medicine and Durham University. Representatives from Indonesia, Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda and Zambia will also partner in the research.

Within the Notre Dame community, the Department of Computer Science and Engineering will spearhead much of the project’s data management, including database design, Web access, spatial visualization and data, Collins said.

“In order to do our research successfully, we need to develop well managed systems for data and make sure it is entered without error so it can be available for analyses,” Collins said. “The College of Engineering can help us do that. The integrity and quality of our data is critical.”

The project will include test areas in Africa and Indonesia.

“Even though much of it is focused in Africa, we’ll also have a big component that will be in Indonesia, which represents a kind of step outside of the standard high transmission zone that’s typically looked at in Africa,” Collins said in a press release.

Although Notre Dame is working with several other outside organizations, all of the money is going directly to the University. How the money is then distributed is at Collins’ discretion.

“Within the grant, we established sub-contracts to organize what we are going to do,” he said. The collaborating organizations also helped in writing the initial proposal to the Gates Foundation.

The Foundation assigns a program officer to each grant they award to oversee the progress of the initiative.

“The officer won’t tell us what to do or how to do it, but they will make sure we are meeting the milestones we set for ourselves at the beginning of the project,” Collins said.

The project’s officer will participate in conference calls and meet with the group throughout her five-year tenure.

The next step, Collins said, is an organizational one.

“We are now in the process of writing detailed protocols for our research.”

The principle researchers and organizers will meet for a five-day conference in Zambia in November where they will present the details of their project to an external advisory board and colleagues.

Collins has no plans to take a leave from the University to complete the project.

The Gates Foundation focuses on global health and development and was established in 2000 to “help reduce inequities in the United States and around the world,” according to the Gates Foundation Web site.

It gave over $1,562,514,000 in grants in 2006 within the Foundation’s three main realms: global development, global health and the United States.