The Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine at Virginia Tech has announced that it is a Grand Challenges Explorations winner, an initiative funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

Lijuan Yuan, associate professor of virology and immunology in the Department of Biomedical Sciences and Pathobiology, will pursue an innovative global health and development research project, titled “Gnotobiotic Pig Model for Dysbiosis and Enteric Immunity.”

Grand Challenges Explorations funds individuals worldwide to explore ideas that can break the mold in how we solve persistent global health and development challenges. Yuan’s project is one of 52 Grand Challenges Explorations Round 12 grants announced today by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. There were approximately 1,700 proposals submitted in Round 12, with 52 awards made.

To receive funding, Yuan and other Grand Challenges Explorations Round 12 winners demonstrated in a two-page online application a bold idea in one of five critical global heath and development topic areas that included agriculture development, behavior change, and looking into animal and human health. Applications for the next round will be accepted starting September 2014.

Yuan is developing a gnotobiotic pig model with human gut microbiota to better understand how an imbalance of gut microbes, as well as a compromised intestinal immune system, negatively impacts the effectiveness of the rotavirus vaccine. Rotavirus is a leading cause of infectious diarrhea in developing countries, but infants in those countries often have a weak immune response to rotavirus vaccines. Yuan hopes that gnotobiotic animals, which are reared in a sterile or microbially-controlled laboratory environment and exposed to specific microorganisms, will lend clues about gut immunity in developing world infants.

The 18-month, $100,000 grant funds the pre-clinical step necessary to establish the model which will be used to test potential interventions for developing world infants. The study involves collecting samples from 50 Nicaraguan infants vaccinated for rotavirus. Project partners include Dr. Sylvia Becker-Dreps, assistant professor of family medicine at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and associate director of the UNC School of Medicine’s Office of International Activities; M. Andrea Azcarate-Peril, assistant research professor at UNC Chapel Hill and director of the Microbiome Core Facility and Research Lab; and Samuel Vilchez, professor and chair of the Department of Microbiology at the University of Nicaragua.

Grand Challenges Explorations is a $100 million initiative funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Launched in 2008, over 950 people in more than 55 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 $100,000 are awarded two times a year. Successful projects have the opportunity to receive a follow-on grant of up to $1 million.

Written by Michael Sutphin.