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Canadians researchers win Gates grants for some weird science

Mario Ostrowski is a researcher partnered with St. Michael's Hospital and the University of Toronto in pioneering AIDS research.

Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail

Three Canadian researchers have won grants from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to pursue sci-fi health projects so farfetched they wouldn't normally qualify for conventional funding – but might just be crazy enough to work.

Two seek to fool the shifty virus behind HIV/AIDS; a third goes for the gut, tackling infant malnutrition through the critters inhabiting a healthy stomach.

Andrès Finzi, with the Centre de recherche du Centre hospitalier de l'Université de Montréal, is trying to beat HIV at its own game, using toxic genes to invade, then poison infected cells using the same lock-and-key mechanism with which the virus blasts its way through a healthy human body.

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Mario Ostrowski, a researcher partnering with St. Michael's Hospital and the University of Toronto, is relying on millennia-old dormant codings in the human genome to train the body to eradicate a virus too prone to shape-shifting for conventional vaccination.

Deanna Gibson and Sanjoy Ghosh of the University of British Columbia seek to determine whether improving a pregnant woman's diet ensures her baby has healthy microflora in its gut to protect it from diseases later in life.

Each is on the receiving end of $100,000 grants from the Gates Foundation, announced Monday. And if their research is successful, they'll be up for a million-dollar second phase of the foundation's Grand Challenges Initiative. The fund's raison d'être is to financially boost radical research into the most persistent conundrums plaguing global health.

Even if they don't get that second infusion, Monday's grants are at least validation for ideas most would think too nascent or fantastical to warrant serious funding.

"Conventional funding helps to fund conventional ideas," Dr. Finzi said from his lab in Montreal, where he's already started working on preliminary chain reactions and headhunting a postdoctoral research assistant. "Now we're looking for crazy ideas – something unconventional. And the only way to test that is to get this amount of money.… It's almost impossible."

Dr. Finzi returned to Canada from postdoctoral work at Harvard University expecting to launch full-time into grant-writing mode. "I went to this meeting for the [Canadian Institute for Health Research]where people said, 'Don't get discouraged: People need to go through two, three cycles in order to get funding.' I'm very happy to be able to bring that American grant money here.… This is a great opportunity."

Dr. Ostrowski's project, which targets latent reservoirs of HIV-infected cells that escape most anti-retroviral treatment, is the kind of risky research gambit that would probably garner skeptical responses from more august bodies. There just isn't enough data out there to back it up.

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But in this case, the projects' fanciful nature is just the point.

"We're looking for out-of-the-box ideas," said Peter Singer, CEO of Grand Challenges Canada. Dr. Singer's organization is a federally funded body partnering with the Gates Foundation in its financial boost to more unorthodox research pitches. He was in New Delhi this week for the announcement.

"Historically, innovation hasn't been applied to global health," he said. "We need to do better.… To have a really transformational fix, you need to be willing to take on some risk."

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