NU professors win Gates Foundation grants for synthetic biology projects

Meghan Morris

Northwestern researchers received two $100,000 grants from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation for their work with synthetic biology and global health.

Professors Keith E.J. Tyo and Joshua N. Leonard will research inexpensive in-home diagnostic tests, and Prof. Andreas Matouschek will also work with Tyo to study malaria treatments. The grants, from the Grand Challenges Explorations program, are for 18 months but can be extended if initial research is successful.

“That tells you a lot about the Gates Foundation strategy: fund a lot of products initially and see what has a shot at actually being successful, then move those forward to the next stage,” Leonard said.

Tyo said the projects are “high-risk, high-reward,” meaning their technology is in such an early stage that the researchers do not know what will result from their experiments. Tyo and Leonard’s project focuses on developing methods in which cells can detect particular pathogens, such as HIV and tuberculosis. They then want to replicate these new tests and distribute them to other countries, especially those that lack medical technology and facilities, Tyo said.

“The dream, the five-years-plus goal, would be to make something that looks more or less like a pregnancy test that could be very cheap and doesn’t need to be refrigerated, doesn’t require someone who’s technical to operate it,” Tyo said. It “could do lots of other diagnostic functions to tell you how’s your immune function and what pathogen you might be infected with.”

They said the global need for a readily available detection system comes from data that shows close monitoring can control a disease’s spread.

“It’s taking on a known opportunity that’s not being met right now with diagnostics,” Tyo said. “In the U.S. we have very good hospitals and hospital labs that we don’t have in other places.”

The second project, which is a collaboration between Tyo and Matouschek, aims to create a mechanism that will lead the Plasmodium parasite, which causes malaria, to attack its own proteins. This would in turn help kill the parasite.

“It’s tricking a cell to kill itself,” Tyo said.

Tyo also received a previous $100,000 Grand Challenges Explorations grant in November for a separate project, which focuses on lowering the price of drugs that treat diseases such as malaria. All three grants apply to global health issues, he said.

“Their goal as a foundation is that people should lead healthy and productive lives,” Tyo said. “They are looking at strategies that have the best cost-benefit ratio for improving the quality of life.”

Thus far, the Gates Foundation has awarded 30 awards for research in synthetic biology through their program called “Apply Synthetic Biology to Global Health Challenges.”

“These grants highlight two very exciting intersections at Northwestern between synthetic biology and global health,” Tyo said. “It’s a very exciting topic area to be working in, and I think Northwestern is rapidly becoming a leader in this area.”

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