Cork scientists win funding from Bill Gates’ foundation for Africa study

26 May 2016

University College Cork (UCC) has been named a ‘Grand Challenges Explorations’ winner, with $100,000 funding awarded to scientists at APC Microbiome Institute to investigate infant death in developing countries.

Set up by the Bill Melinda Gates Foundation, Grand Challenges Explorations’ funding programme targets researchers that develop “a bold idea” in one of five critical global heath and development topic areas.

For Dr Jennifer Mahony and Prof Douwe Van Sinderen, that means $100,000 funding for an 18-month project to investigate the microbiota (bacteria and viruses) of infants in developing countries.

Longer lives

Aiming to develop bacterial viruses that can target the bad bacteria in the gut, Mahony hopes to help reduce the estimated 0.8m infants who die annually in developing countries.

“Children die of often simple infections, which would not be a problem over here,” she said.

By looking at children’s gut bacteria – through faecal samples – Mahony and Van Sinderen hope they can arm the children with enough biological weaponry to fight off any such threats.

“In our guts we have loads of bacteria,” she told “Good and bad. We want to learn more about that.”

The project will see Mahony and Van Sinderen partner with Dr Marco Ventura of the University of Parma, importing faecal matter from children in sub-Saharan Africa to study.

Dr Jennifer Mahony & Prof Douwe van Sinderen, APC Microbiome Institute at UCC | Bill Gates

Dr Jennifer Mahony & Prof Douwe van Sinderen, of APC Microbiome Institute at UCC, will be backed by a Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation project

A fight of good vs bad

In particular, they will examine how the phage present influences the balance of good bacteria, like bifidobacteria, and harmful/pathogenic bacteria, such as enterotoxigenic E.coli and Shigella.

Should the project go well, and results validate further research, $1m can be provided in follow-up funding for particularly interesting research.

“We want to track infants from when they are born, right up until they are six months old,” said Mahony, who has already started the process of getting the project fully functioning.

This requires everything from ethical evaluation, to a proper chain of produce set up between UCC’s APC Microbiome Institute and hospitals in Africa.

Grand Challenges Explorations is a $100m initiative from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which has funded more than 1,186 projects in more than 61 countries since 2008.

An exciting industry

Earlier this year, researchers based at the APC Microbiome Institute discovered a direct link between gut bacteria and myelination, expanding our knowledge of neurological performance.

Investigating if the bacteria swirling around our gut influences the prefrontal cortex, a brain region that is key to higher cognitive functions and in the expression of anxiety and social behaviours, scientists found that, surprisingly, it does.

APC Microbiome may be leading the way, but there are global challengers.

In a bid to aid an area of science that the White House thinks is “lacking” in tools, resources and interest, a US National Microbiome Initiative has been created – healthcare, food production and environmental restoration are areas it is hoping to benefit.

Intestines and stomach image, via Shutterstock

Gordon Hunt was a journalist with Silicon Republic