UM Receives $100,000 Grand Challenges Explorations Grant for Innovative Global Health Research by Larry Walker

Miss. – The University of Mississippi has received a $100,000 Grand
Challenges Explorations grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates
Foundation. The grant will support an innovative global health research
project conducted by Larry Walker, director of the National Center for
Natural Products Research, titled “Primaquine Revisited – Safety and
Efficacy of Primaquine Enantiomers.”

Walker’s project is one of
81 grants announced by the Gates Foundation in the second funding round
of Grand Challenges Explorations, an initiative to help scientists
around the world explore bold and largely unproven ways to improve
health in developing countries. The grants were provided to scientists
in 17 countries on six continents.

To receive funding, Walker
showed in a two-page application how his idea falls outside current
scientific paradigms and might lead to significant advances in global
health. The initiative is highly competitive, receiving more than 3,000
proposals in this round.

The UM project focuses on reducing the toxicity of primaquine, which is a mixture of two isomers, or molecules that have the same composition but are mirror images of each other. The idea is to test whether one of the isomers alone will kill malaria parasites but produce fewer toxic side effects for humans. Primaquine is a key weapon against malaria cases caused by the Plasmodium vivax parasite because this species lies dormant for a time in the patient’s liver.

“People with vivax malaria who are treated with other drugs don’t get rid of the liver stages, so they get sick again,” Walker said. “This is called relapsing malaria, and it requires retreatment unless you can administer primaquine to eliminate the liver parasites.”

Walker and his team plan to test the effectiveness and toxicity of primaquine isomers in animal studies and examine their metabolism and uptake in liver and blood tissues. If these studies yield promising results, Walker plans to use the data to apply for the next phase of the Grand Challenges Explorations award, which would provide funding for human studies of the drug. Ole Miss researchers in the School of Pharmacy and NCNPR have studied a class of potential antimalarials called 8-aminoquinolines, which include primaquine and several similar compounds, for more than 20 years, with funding from the U.S. Department of Defense, National Institutes of Health and Medicines for Malaria Venture.

“The winners of these grants are doing truly exciting and innovative work,” said Dr. Tachi Yamada, president of the Gates Foundation’s Global Health Program. “I’m optimistic that some of these exploratory projects will lead to life-saving breakthroughs for people in the world’s poorest countries.”

About Grand Challenges Explorations

Grand Challenges Explorations is a five-year, $100 million initiative of the Gates Foundation to promote innovation in global health. The program uses an agile, streamlined grant process – applications are limited to two pages, and preliminary data are not required. Proposals are reviewed and selected by a committee of foundation staff and external experts, and grant decisions are made within approximately three months of the close of the funding round.

Applications for the next round of Grand Challenges Explorations are being accepted through May 28, 2009. Grant application instructions, including the list of topic areas in which proposals are currently being accepted, are available at the Grand Challenges Explorations Web site.

About the National Center for Natural Products Research

A division of the UM Research Institute of Pharmaceutical Sciences, NCNPR is the nation’s only university research center devoted to improving human health and agricultural productivity through the discovery, development, and commercialization of pharmaceuticals and agrochemicals derived from plants, marine organisms and other natural products. For more information, go to