Ten leading scientists talked to Bill Gates about their research - <em>News</em>
By Lucy Goodchild
Friday 15 May 2009
The philanthropist and personal computing pioneer Bill Gates came to Imperial College London this month to find out more about research into diseases that blight the health of underprivileged populations across the world.
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Mr Gates and his wife Melinda established the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which funds efforts to improve the health of people in the developing world. It has awarded grants to several Imperial research programmes, including major projects tackling neglected tropical diseases and HIV.
The Schistosomiasis Control Initiative (SCI) has been granted nearly $48 million by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, for its work on controlling and evaluating schistosomiasis and other worm diseases. It has now delivered over 40 million doses of the treatment praziquantel and over 100 million de-worming tablets to school-aged children in Africa.
The Foundation has also awarded over $15.9 million funding to Imperial’s CD4 Initiative, which is developing an easy-to-use $2 test that can measure the number of CD4 cells in an HIV patient’s blood. Healthcare workers need to know this CD4 count in order to make important clinical decisions about a patient’s treatment.
In a three hour meeting with Mr Gates on 1 May, ten leading Imperial scientists, including Rector, Sir Roy Anderson, talked about their research in areas including modelling the HIV epidemic, preventing malaria infections and assessing different polio vaccines.
The Rector said of Mr Gates’ visit: “Our meeting was characterised by much lively scientific debate and there were a lot of exchanges about how mathematical modelling and simulation can help with the design and evaluation of public health interventions in poorer countries. These were very stimulating and valuable discussions.
"The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is carrying out hugely important work that enables millions of people across the world to have better health and a better quality of life. Many of our researchers here at Imperial have similar goals and are similarly dedicated to fighting diseases that continue to cause premature death, particularly in the poorest countries. We were pleased to have the opportunity to meet with Bill Gates and discuss this research further with him, and to thank him in person for the Foundation’s generous support for several of our projects in the developing world.”
Tackling HIV with better modelling information
Some of the HIV research underway at Imperial focuses on modelling the epidemic to help governments develop better policies to curb the spread of HIV. Professor Geoffrey Garnett, from the Department of Infectious Disease Epidemiology, talked at the meeting about monitoring trends in HIV prevalence. This monitoring reveals changing patterns of new infections and risk behaviour, thereby allowing researchers to identify successful prevention programmes. Professor Garnett’s group also uses mathematical models to predict how effective new interventions, such as circumcision or treatment to prevent transmission, might be.
Professor Garnett said: “It is clear in the HIV community that there is still a lot of work to be done. Our models can help governments to plan the best way to tackle HIV by showing which interventions work in which areas. This can make a real difference to people living in those areas, by helping to lower their risk of infection.”
Fighting malaria by blocking parasites
Researchers at the meeting on 1 May also discussed with Mr Gates the research into malaria being done at Imperial, and its relevance to his call to eradicate the disease. Professor Robert Sinden and his colleagues from the Division of Cell & Molecular Biology are developing methods to block the malaria parasite from being transmitted by mosquitoes through endemic populations.
Professor Sinden said: “Stopping the malaria parasite from being passed from the mosquito to the human is the key to the new initiative for the possible eradication of the disease. Malaria is a devastating disease that causes immense personal suffering and economic stress in endemic countries. If we are to succeed in eradicating malaria, we need to develop new ways of preventing transmission, and the bottlenecks in the parasite population as it passes to and from the mosquito are ideal points of attack.”
Working to eradicate polio
Another disease that researchers are working hard to help eradicate is polio, a serious childhood disease that can lead to paralysis and death. Dr Nicholas Grassly, from the Department of Infectious Disease Epidemiology, explained to Mr Gates that eradication efforts are hampered by limits to vaccine effectiveness in preventing disease and stopping virus transmission, as well as difficulties delivering the vaccines to children. Dr Grassly and his group are looking at how well polio vaccines work to prevent infection and the group has been helping different countries to plan immunisation activities so that the vaccines used match the epidemiology of the virus.
Dr Grassly said: “We had hoped that polio would be eradicated by 2000 but unfortunately transmission of the virus has yet to be stopped in four countries. Spread of infectio n from these four countries has resulted in currently ongoing outbreaks in 15 countries in Africa and A sia. Maximising vaccine effectiveness and getting the right vaccine to the right children is key to fighting this disease and we hope our work will help to do this.”
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