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Otago receives US$100,000 Grand Challenges Explorations grant for ground-breaking research in global health and development

Concrete Goblin

Friday, 29 April 2011 2:36pm

The University of Otago announced today that it is a Grand Challenges Explorations winner, an initiative funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Associate Professor Russell Poulter of the Department of Biochemistry will pursue an innovative global health and development research project, titled “Targeting HIV provirus with novel restriction endonucleases”.

Grand Challenges Explorations (GCE) funds scientists and researchers worldwide to explore ideas that can break the mould in how we solve persistent global health and development challenges. Associate Professor Poulter’s project is one of over 85 Grand Challenges Explorations Round 6 grants announced today by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

“GCE winners are expanding the pipeline of ideas for serious global health and development challenges where creative thinking is most urgently needed. These grants are meant to spur on new discoveries that could ultimately save millions of lives,” said Chris Wilson, director of Global Health Discovery at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

To receive funding, Associate Professor Poulter and other Grand Challenges Explorations Round 6 winners demonstrated in a two-page online application a bold idea in one of five critical global heath and development topic areas: polio eradication, HIV, sanitation and family health technologies, and mobile health. Applications for the current open round, Grand Challenges Explorations Round 7, will be accepted through May 19, 2011.

In their project, Associate Professor Poulter and his team will evaluate enzymes, known as ‘homing’ endonucleases, for their suitability in eliminating HIV from infected cells. The genomes of a few organisms encode ‘homing’ endonucleases, nucleases that cut DNA at defined sites. Several groups are researching the application of these endonucleases to target virus DNA in infected human cells. However, many endonucleases produce toxicity because of their “off-target” cleavage of human DNA that can potentially initiate malignancies such as leukemia.

To get around this problem, the Otago researchers will study homing endonucleases they have discovered to be encoded in the nuclear DNA of fungi. They predict that the enzymes will have very precise DNA target recognition to avoid damage to the large fungal genomes. If the researchers’ prediction is borne out, these enzymes could be modified to seek out and cut HIV DNA within infected cells without risking collateral damage to the human genes.

About Grand Challenges Explorations

Grand Challenges Explorations is a US$100 million initiative funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Launched in 2008, Grand Challenge Explorations grants have already been awarded to nearly 500 researchers from over 40 countries. The grant programme is open to anyone from any discipline and from any organisation.

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 a year. Successful projects have the opportunity to receive a follow-on grant of up to US$1 million.

For further information, contact

Associate Professor Russell Poulter
Department of Biochemistry
Tel 64 3 479 7856
Email russell.poulter@otago.ac.nz

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