UO receives Grand Challenges Explorations Grant for research in global health and development

Janis Weeks
Janis Weeks

The University of Oregon is a Grand Challenges Explorations winner – an initiative funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Janis Weeks – a professor in the University of Oregon Department of Biology, Institute of Neuroscience (ION) and African Studies Program – will pursue an innovative global health and development research project, titled “Neurophysiology-based platform for STH drug discovery.”

Grand Challenges Explorations (GCE) funds individuals worldwide to explore ideas that can break the mold in how we solve persistent global health and development challenges. Weeks’ project is one of the Grand Challenges Explorations Round 10 grants announced this week by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. 

To receive funding, Weeks and other Grand Challenges Explorations Round 10 winners demonstrated in a two-page online application a bold idea in one of four critical global heath and development topic areas that included agriculture development, neglected tropical diseases and communications. Applications for the next Round will be accepted starting September 2013.

The project involves the implementation of a neurophysiology-based technology to accelerate discovery of drugs to eliminate intestinal worm infections, specifically human soil-transmitted helminthic (STH) infections. Two to three billion of the world’s poorest people carry STH infections, yet only four anthelmintics (antiparasitic drugs for worm infections) are approved for human STH treatment. STH infection occurs when eggs in fecally contaminated soil are ingested or immature worms penetrate the skin. After completing development, adult worms reside and feed in the intestines, causing chronic ill health – especially in children – hindering physical, cognitive and economic development. Currently, the anthelmintics being used have serious shortcomings and the pipeline for new anthelmintic drugs for STH infections is inadequate.

Weeks — an expert in insect neurophysiology with experience teaching at African universities, as well as field experience in African communities struggling with health challenges — says the technology her team is working on has the potential to make a difference. The technology, invented by UO biology professor and ION member Shawn Lockery, integrates microfluidics – the precise control of fluids and samples at sub-millimeter scales – with electrophysiology. Using microfluidic devices, or “chips,” that contain nematodes (worms) in individual saline-filled microchannels, the team non-invasively records the activity of neurons and muscles in living worms. Weeks’ Grand Challenges idea is to apply the technology for the first time to parasites responsible for STH infections. The Grand Challenges award will fund the deployment of the microfluidic EPG method as a new tool in the drug development pipeline, with the goal of developing safe, effective and affordable new treatments for debilitating human STH infections.  Weeks’ award is the first grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation for a UO researcher.

About Grand Challenges Explorations

Grand Challenges Explorations is a US$100 million initiative funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Launched in 2008, over 800 people in more than 50 countries have received Grand Challenges Explorations grants. The grant program is open to anyone from any discipline and from any organization. The initiative uses an agile, accelerated grant-making process with short two-page online applications and no preliminary data required. Initial grants of US$100,000 are awarded two times per year. Successful projects have the opportunity to receive follow-on grants of up to US$1 million.

- from the UO Office of Research, Innovation and Graduate Education