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Ottawa scientist receives $100,000 Grand Challenges Explorations Grant for innovative global health research

November 9, 2010

A scientist from the Ottawa Hospital Research Institute (OHRI) and the University of Ottawa has been awarded a US$100,000 Grand Challenges Explorations grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The grant will support a team led by Dr. Nongnuj Tanphaichitr that is working to develop a novel vaginal contraceptive that also prevents the transmission of HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases.

“Our group has been working for many years to understand how sperm and eggs interact at the molecular level, and we’ve recently found a natural antimicrobial peptide that seems to be able to inactivate sperm, as well as certain viruses and bacteria,” said Dr. Tanphaichitr, a Senior Scientist in the Reproductive Biology Group in the Chronic Disease Program at OHRI and Professor in the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Ottawa. “With this funding from the Gates Foundation, we will be able to take our work to the next level, and see if we can find a way to use this peptide as part of a novel vaginal contraceptive. This type of contraceptive could have a huge impact on human health, as sexually transmitted infections are a major cause of illness and death around the world, and there is a great need for new prevention approaches that can be used by women.”

Dr. Tanphaichitr’s project is one of 65 grants announced by the Gates Foundation in the fifth 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 16 countries on 5 continents. To receive funding, Dr. Tanphaichitr showed in a two-page application how her idea falls outside current scientific paradigms and might lead to significant advances in global health. The initiative is highly competitive, receiving more than 2,400 proposals in this round.

The antimicrobial peptide that Dr. Tanphaichitr and her colleagues are investigating is called LL-37 and it is naturally present in human semen, but in an inactive form. Dr. Tanphaichitr is proposing to include the active LL-37 peptide in a vaginal ring that would slowly release it into the vagina over a long period. This type of spermicidal product would be unique, as it is based on a compound that is produced by body. Most existing spermicidal products are chemical detergents, which can be toxic to the vagina and can actually increase the risk of disease transmission.

Co-investigators on the project include Dr. Jonathan Angel of the Ottawa Hospital Research Institute and the University of Ottawa, Dr. Robert Hancock at the University of British Columbia and Dr. Emmanuel Ho at the University of Manitoba.

“These are bold ideas from innovative thinkers, which is exactly what we need in global health research right now,” said Dr. Tachi Yamada, president of the Gates Foundation’s Global Health Program. “I’m excited to see some of these daring projects develop into life-saving breakthroughs for those who need them the most.”

For more information about Dr. Tanphaichitr, see www.ohri.ca/profiles/tanpha.asp.

About the Ottawa Hospital Research Institute
The Ottawa Hospital Research Institute (OHRI) is the research arm of The Ottawa Hospital and is an affiliated institute of the University of Ottawa, closely associated with the University’s Faculties of Medicine and Health Sciences. The OHRI includes more than 1,500 scientists, clinical investigators, graduate students, postdoctoral fellows and staff conducting research to improve the understanding, prevention, diagnosis and treatment of human disease. www.ohri.ca

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. The next round of Grand Challenges Explorations will open in March 2011. More information, including grant application instructions and a list of topics for which proposals will be accepted, will be available at www.grandchallenges.org/explorations.

Media contact
Jennifer Paterson
Director, Communications and Public Relations
Ottawa Hospital Research Institute
613-798-5555 ext. 73325
jpaterson@ohri.ca