During his recent visit to the NIH, Bill Gates made a welcomed prediction. “We’re just at the beginning of what we can do together,” he asserted, referring to the combined efforts of the NIH and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to improve healthcare for the world’s most impoverished nations. Gates was invited to deliver the NIH’s 2013 David E. Barmes Global Health Lecture in December. The NIH and the Gates Foundation currently represent 57 percent of all funding for global health research, according to NIH’s Fogarty International Center, with NIH contributing 40 percent and the Gates Foundation about 17.
During his lecture, Gates touted the success of past global health interventions carried out by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, while emphasizing the importance of the biomedical research conducted either at NIH or by NIH-funded researchers that made many of them possible. He also pointed out new global health challenges and stressed the need for biomedical innovation to overcome them.
Point-of-Care Technologies Are a Major Focus
In a separate session, NIBIB Director Roderic Pettigrew and several other NIH directors met with Gates to discuss current NIH-funded research projects that have the potential to improve healthcare in resource-limited areas.
Pettigrew emphasized NIBIB’s continued leadership in developing new point-of-care (POC) technologies, which provide rapid diagnoses at the time of a patient’s examination.
“Point-of-care technologies are designed so they can be carried out at a patient’s bedside, without the need for additional medical infrastructure or specially trained healthcare workers,” said Pettigrew. “The goal is to bring modern molecular diagnostics to any location in the world, make that diagnosis at an earlier stage, and increase the likelihood that a patient will receive treatment by eliminating the waiting time between testing for an illness and medical intervention.”
One example of an NIBIB-funded POC technology currently being developed is a microfluidic chip that uses a clever manipulation of sunlight on different areas of the chip to extract and detect cholera toxins from complex samples such as vomit or stool. This inexpensive device, which doesn’t require electricity or a trained operator, could significantly enhance the accuracy and speed of cholera diagnosis in low resource areas.
NIBIB-funded researchers, in conjunction with the CDC, are also working to develop the first electricity-free, easy-to-use, low-cost device for amplifying bacterial DNA. Such a device could dramatically improve the ability of patients in resource-limited areas to receive timely diagnoses and subsequent treatment of infectious diseases.
Additional examples of NIBIB-funded projects with global health applications include a silk-based stabilizer that can keep vaccines and antibiotics stable up to temperatures of 140 degrees Fahrenheit. The stabilizer could eliminate the need for vaccines to be kept cold during transit, a major barrier to vaccine delivery in developing countries, which often don’t have access to refrigeration.
Shaping the Future of Global Health Research
In a follow-up meeting in Seattle, NIBIB Associate Director of Extramural Research, William Heetderks, met with Gates Foundation staff and other experts in child development to further discuss how biomedical innovation can help reduce global health disparities. An important part of the conversation centered on whether brain imaging could be used to determine the efficacy of simple interventions like improved nutrition for improved cognitive development.
“Much of the research NIBIB supports with applications to global health involves the development of new devices that can be used in low-resource settings. Our imaging expertise can complement that of the Gates foundation and address challenges of mutual interest in advancing global health,” said Heetderks.