UF receives Gates Foundation grant to pursue global health research

A University of Florida biomedical researcher has received a $100,000 grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation for his proposal to develop a safer polio vaccine that can be used in parts of the world where polio is a threat, as well as in countries such as the United States, where polio has been eradicated.

James B. Flanegan, a professor and the chairman of the department of biochemistry and molecular biology at the UF College of Medicine, was named a Gates Foundation Grand Challenges Explorations winner.

The Grand Challenges Explorations program funds scientists and researchers worldwide to explore ideas that can break the mold in efforts to solve persistent global health and development challenges. Flanegan’s project is one of almost 90 Grand Challenges Explorations Round 6 grants announced this week.

“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, Flanegan 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.

Flanegan’s strategy to accelerate the end of polio and sustain eradication involves developing a poliovirus vaccine composed of virus capsids — the protein shell of the virus — that look like the virus, but are not infectious.

Polio is an incurable, crippling and often fatal disease that can strike at any age. Children are most often affected and it is usually transmitted through direct contact. The disease has been eradicated in the West; however, infections continue in countries in Asia and Africa. Polio will not truly be eradicated until immunization measures completely prevent transmission of the virus.

With a doctorate in biochemistry from the University of Michigan, Flanegan joined the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1975, where he began research on the replication of RNA viruses. He joined the UF College of Medicine in 1978, became a professor in 1987 and was named chairman of the department of biochemistry and molecular Biology in 1998.

A past member of the National Institutes of Health Virology Study Section, he received the College of Medicine Faculty Research Award in 1989, a UF Research Foundation Professorship in 1998 and the Professorial Excellence Program Award in 1999.

Launched in 2008, Grand Challenges Explorations grants already have been awarded to nearly 500 researchers from over 40 countries. Successful projects have the opportunity to receive a follow-up grant of up to $1 million.