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Help Wanted: Unlikely Geniuses To Solve Public Health Problems

Astrophysicist Szabolcs Marka has a radical idea: Use light as a barrier between mosquitoes and humans. He was awarded a $100,000 Grand Challenge grant by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to see if the idea really works.
Courtesy of the Gates Foundation
Astrophysicist Szabolcs Marka has a radical idea: Use light as a barrier between mosquitoes and humans. He was awarded a $100,000 Grand Challenge grant by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to see if the idea really works.

Sometimes a fetus can't make it into the birth canal. Both mother and child are at risk. If you were looking to fix the problem, you probably wouldn't call up an Argentine car mechanic.

But maybe you should.

In 2011, mechanic Jorge Odon came up with an invention using a folded plastic sleeve pumped up with air to pop the baby out — an idea inspired by a party trick Odon saw on YouTube for getting a cork out of an empty wine bottle with a plastic bag.

Odon is a star in the Grand Challenge universe. That's the program that offers grants to people who come up with innovative solutions, often in the field of health care.

And now there's a Grand Challenge that aims to help medical workers fighting Ebola: Design an improved protective suit. Current models are suffocating and can heat up to well over 100 degrees inside. That means they can only be worn 30 to 40 minutes at a time in the tropical heat of West Africa.

On Tuesday, the U.S. Agency for International Development announced a $5 million contest, asking innovators to develop cooler, more breathable protective gear. Proposals are welcome immediately; USAID head Dr. Rajiv Shah expects the first funding to come as early as December.

Anyone can enter, from a technology whiz to a small business owner. And, of course, auto mechanics.

And therein lies the power of the Grand Challenge — finding great ideas from perhaps surprising sources, says Wendy Taylor, director of USAID's Center for Accelerating Innovation and Impact.

To date, the challenges have resulted in more than 1,600 grants of up to $100,000 each in 80 countries.

In the Grand Challenge's 10-year history, some of the most groundbreaking ideas have come from the unlikeliest of partners, says Casey Dunning, a policy analyst at the Center for Global Development, a D.C.-based think tank.

For example, if you're looking to eradicate malaria, an astrophysicist probably wouldn't be your go-to guy. But when Columbia University's Szabolcs Marka proposed an "optical bed net" using light as a barrier between humans and mosquitoes, the Gates Foundation (which is a supporter of NPR) awarded him a $100,000 grant in its 2008 Grand Challenge.

Marka is still testing his approach, and that's fine with the Grand Challenge organizers. "Part of what we try to do under this type of funding is not to incrementally advance the state of knowledge but to take a risk on new ideas," says Steve Buchsbaum, who leads the Gates Foundation's Grand Challenge program. "It's a little crazy or a little risky. [Marka] certainly hasn't proven that this will work."

Buchsbaum acknowledges that most far-out ideas won't pan out. But the results from those that do can be dramatic.

In 2011, a public health research group called the John Snow International received a grant to begin using chlorhexidine, a low-cost antiseptic, to prevent umbilical cord infections throughout Nepal. Since the rollout, more than half a million newborns have been treated and the country's infant mortality rate has dropped by over 30 percent. USAID now plans to help introduce the antiseptic in 15 other countries.

Of course, more projects fail than succeed. To Buchsbaum, failures are worthwhile, too. He points to an early effort by a researcher at Imperial College London to create new drugs for latent tuberculosis.

No new drugs came out of his research. "But in the process, [he and his colleagues] fundamentally changed the way the scientific community understands tuberculosis," Buchsbaum tells Goats and Soda. TB used to be seen as either active or dormant, he says. Now scientists understand it's not an either/or problem; how active TB is lies on a spectrum.

The Center for Global Development's Dunning has another concern: time. It can take years to test proposed innovations and then ramp up production.

"It's one thing to solicit all these great ideas," she says. "Then the question becomes, is the solution scalable and in a timely fashion." She adds the world has yet to see the benefits from many Grand Challenge innovations.

The Ebola crisis underscores her point. "Action should be happening right now" to help stop the current outbreak, she says.

But, she adds, "I am happy to be proven wrong."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Linda Poon