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Howard Hughes Targets Infectious Diseases

Marcelo Briones studies Chagas' disease, a chronic and debilitating illness affecting 18 million people in Latin America. But this week, when he felt his knees go weak, it wasn't from contemplating the terrible human suffering wrought by the parasite. Briones, of Federal University in São Paulo, Brazil, had just learned he would be getting a 5-year grant from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute under a new program that funds 45 scientists in 20 countries. The $15 million initiative, which supports research on a variety of infectious and parasitic diseases, marks the first Hughes program outside the United States that is tailored to a specific research area.

The program builds upon two highly praised regional initiatives, one in Eastern Europe and the other serving Canada and Latin America, that support individual scientists working in a broad range of fields. The charity saw an opportunity to prop up an underfunded area, says HHMI president Thomas Cech. "The economic incentive for research [on these diseases] by large pharmaceutical companies is very limited," he says. "They may never recoup a large research investment by future sales."

Experts say they are surprised that the institute, traditionally a bastion of basic research, is venturing into a more applied arena. But "the more the merrier," says Richard Lane, head of International Programs at The Wellcome Trust charity in London, which itself supports much work in the area.

The grantees, chosen competitively, say the Hughes award will allow them to do work that might never have been funded by their national programs. Malaria researcher Ross Coppel of Monash University in Victoria, Australia, wants to examine the enzymes that build the thick and waxy cell walls of mycobacteria, the type of bugs that cause tuberculosis and leprosy. Knocking out one or more of these enzymes could make these bugs more vulnerable to antibiotics. "Granting agencies are often loathe to support investigators who are making a major switch of this sort," says Coppel, one of 11 Australians, the most from any one country.

Besides paying for supplies and equipment, the awards--ranging from $225,000 to $450,000 a year--are also expected to help support hundreds of young scientists and to strengthen the scientific infrastructure in participating countries. Thomas Egwang of the Medical Biotechnology Labs in Kampala, Uganda, who recalls "breaking into a grin and punching the air in delight" upon hearing about his grant, will teach how to apply advanced molecular biology techniques to studies of river blindness, a fly-borne parasitic disease that afflicts as many as 20 million people worldwide.

Briones plans to use some of his grant money for travel. "I want to go to high-quality meetings where I can meet people smarter than me," he says.

Related sites
HHMI press release announcing the grants