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NEWS | May 9, 2012

UC Davis researcher receives Grand Challenges Explorations Grant for groundbreaking malaria research

Editor's note:

Click here to download a photograph of Dr. David Segal.

(SACRAMENTO, Calif.)

UC Davis functional genomics expert David Segal will receive a $100,000 Grand Challenges Explorations (GCE) grant to advance his work in identifying pharmaceuticals that target the genetics of malaria and overcome antimalarial drug resistance.

David Segal copyright 2012 UC Regents David Segal copyright 2012 UC Regents

Announced today by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, GCE grants are awarded to individuals worldwide with bold ideas for solving persistent global health and development challenges.

"Grand Challenges Explorations encourages individuals worldwide to expand the pipeline of ideas where creative, unorthodox thinking is most urgently needed," said Chris Wilson, director of Global Health Discovery and Translational Sciences at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. "We're excited to provide additional funding for select grantees so that they can continue to advance their idea towards global impact."

Drug resistance is one of the biggest impediments to controlling malaria, a blood disease caused by a parasite transmitted to humans by mosquitoes. According to the World Health Organization, malaria affects more than 200 million people and causes more than 600,000 deaths each year. Segal's work involves using the parasite's own genetic makeup to identify compounds that block its ability to multiply and eventually overwhelm its host's cells.

According to Segal, his approach is distinct from current malaria investigations that focus on proteins as drug targets. Finding drugs that fit the complex shapes of proteins is difficult, and even the smallest changes to those shapes can quickly lead to drug resistance.

"Our work concentrates instead on finding drugs that bind to uniform genetic sequences," said Segal, an associate professor of biochemistry and molecular medicine. "Thanks to new technologies, we think it's possible to target all 5,000 of the malaria parasite's genes, blocking the disease process and making drug resistance nearly impossible."

Segal will use the GCE funding to screen libraries of compounds for those capable of both preventing malaria and remaining active for long periods of time in the blood, providing the longest-term protection possible. One of his primary goals is to find compounds that cross the blood-brain barrier and prevent cerebral malaria -- one of the most debilitating consequences of the disease.

"Awareness of the importance of malaria far outpaces the government funding available to address it," said Segal. "Philanthropic organizations like the Gates Foundation are extremely important in developing therapies that help permanently overcome a widespread and deadly disease that so far has outsmarted our best efforts to contain it."

Segal's project is one of over 100 GCE Round 8 grants announced today by the foundation. To receive the funding, he and other winners demonstrated in a two-page online application a bold idea in one of five critical global heath and development topic areas, including agriculture development, immunization and nutrition. Applications for the current open round, Grand Challenges Explorations Round 9, will be accepted through May 15, 2012. 

Grand Challenges Explorations is a U.S. $100 million initiative funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Launched in 2008, over 600 people in 45 countries have received Grand Challenges Explorations grants. The grant program is open to anyone from any discipline and from any organization. The initiative uses an agile, accelerated grant-making process with short two-page online applications and no preliminary data required. Initial grants of U.S. $100,000 are awarded two times a year. Successful projects have the opportunity to receive a follow-on grant of up to U.S. $1 million.

The UC Davis School of Medicine is among the nation's leading medical schools, recognized for its research and primary-care programs. The school offers fully accredited master's degree programs in public health and in informatics, and its combined M.D.-Ph.D. program is training the next generation of physician-scientists to conduct high-impact research and translate discoveries into better clinical care. Along with being a recognized leader in medical research, the school is committed to serving underserved communities and advancing rural health. For more information, visit medschool.ucdavis.edu.