Grants Bolster Latin American Science

BETHESDA, MARYLAND--Guests at an awards ceremony here grimaced as they watched a video of biochemist Lourival Possani pluck a deadly scorpion from a box full of its squirming cousins and tap it gently to extract venom from its tail. But that's all in a day's work for Lourival, a professor at the National Autonomous University of Mexico City, who is trying to develop synthetic defenses to scorpion stings. He is one of 47 non-U.S. American researchers to receive a 5-year grant to sustain his research under a program unveiled today by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI).

Several other award winners appeared at the HHMI meeting to thank the trustees for giving $15 million to biomedical researchers in six American countries: Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Mexico, and Venezuela. These grants, which help pay for staff, equipment, and supplies in countries hurting for infrastructure, are a follow-on to an earlier group of awards HHMI made in 1991. The 47 finalists were winnowed from more than 500 applicants nominated by sponsoring institutions.

The bulk of the HHMI grants will fund molecular research on basic cell biology and studies of parasites, such as Trypanosoma cruzi (which causes the lethargy-inducing Chagas' disease) and Escherichia coli (a cause of fatal childhood infections in poor countries).

"For me, it means a lot,'' says neurobiologist Ana Belen Elgoyhen of the Pharmacological Research Institute in Buenos Aires. Elgoyhen, who also spoke at the awards ceremony, notes that many Latin American researchers get only salaries from their government and rely on European and U.S. sources to support their research. Elgoyhen plans to use her $400,000 grant to pay student stipends and other costs of her studies on nicotinic receptors involved in hearing. Adds awardee Sergio Ferreira of the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, "This is really important for helping to keep good scientists in developing countries.'' They and their colleagues will share their early findings at a meeting in South America in January 1998.