Flinn Scholars News

Biodesign researcher receives Gates grant to develop HIV vaccine

Compiled from media reports

Summary:

Stephen Johnston, of Arizona State University’s Biodesign Institute, has some unorthodox ideas about how we might prevent disease. One of his innovative proposals, aimed at finding a back-door method to combat HIV, has been rewarded with a Grand Challenges Explorations grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Full Story:

Stephen-albert-johnston-news_individual

Stephen Johnson of
ASU's Biodesign Institute.
(Photo Courtesy of ASU)

Stephen Johnston, of Arizona State University’s Biodesign Institute, has some unorthodox ideas about how we might prevent disease. One of his innovative proposals, aimed at finding a back-door method to combat HIV, has been rewarded with a Grand Challenges Explorations grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

The grant, one of 104 awarded worldwide by the Gates Foundation under an unusual, streamlined application process, will support Dr. Johnston’s project, termed “Preventing HIV Backwards,” which will seek to discover proteins only produced upon infection with HIV. Identifying those proteins might allow researchers to formulate a vaccine for HIV.

“Our immune system seems particularly incapable of thwarting HIV attack. I think this justifies exploring an unconventional vaccination strategy,” Dr. Johnston said. “The novelty is that the composition of this vaccine will not be made from elements of the virus, but rather, the aberrant proteins the infected host cell makes because of the HIV infection.”

Dr. Johnston serves as director of the Center for Innovations in Medicine at the Biodesign Institute. His approach to development of an HIV vaccine resembles his cancer research. His team of scientists received a five-year, $8.1 million grant from the U.S. Department of Defense and the Keck Foundation to develop a preventive cancer vaccine.

“Disturbed cells, whether in HIV infection or cancer, make aberrant proteins, that is, proteins not produced at significant levels by normal cells,” Dr. Johnston said. “We believe the technology and knowledge base now exists to determine whether or not both the HIV and cancer ideas are feasible.”

The Grand Challenges Explorations initiative is known less for the amount of funding it offers--each grant is worth $100,000--than for its structure and aims. The 4,000 applicants for its first round of grants submitted just two-page proposals, which were reviewed in short order by staff and external evaluators who knew neither the applicants’ organizational affiliations nor their track record for winning grants. Applicants had to explain both how their projects diverged from current lines of scientific inquiry, and what broad gains their projects could deliver if successful.

“We were hoping this program would level the playing field so anyone with a transformational idea could more quickly assess its potential for the benefit of global health,” said Tachi Yamada, president of global health at the Gates Foundation. “The quality of the applications exceeded all of our expectations. It was so hard for reviewers to champion just one great idea that we selected almost twice as many projects for funding as we had initially planned.”

Over a five-year period, the Gates Foundation is investing a total of $100 million in the Grand Challenges Explorations initiative; the Grand Challenges aim to serve seven goals related to global health: improve vaccines; create new vaccines; control insect vectors; improve nutrition; limit drug resistance; cure infection; and measure health status. Should funded projects show promise, the Gates Foundation may award additional grants of $1 million or more.

The application period for the second round of grants under the initiative closes Nov. 2, with a third round scheduled to open early in 2009.

In 2005, a previous Grand Challenges in Global Health initiative by the Gates Foundation awarded 43 grants totaling $436 million. Among the grant recipients under that initiative was Roy Curtiss, another Biodesign Institute researcher, who received a grant to develop a new single-dose vaccine against bacterial pneumonia that can be delivered to newborns and immune-compromised individuals.

For more information:

ASU news release, 10/23/2008

Gates Foundation news release, 10/22/2008