University of Rochester

University of Rochester Biologist Receives Gates Foundation Grant to Study River Blindness

May 14, 2010

University of Rochester biologist John Jaenike has been awarded a $100,000 Grand Challenges Explorations grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

He is one of 78 scientists to receive the highly competitive grant, which was selected from among 2,700 proposals. According to the foundation, the grants are designed for scientists performing global health research that falls outside of current scientific paradigms.

Jaenike will use the grant to study a novel approach to reduce the incidence of River Blindness, an eyesight-destroying disease that is especially prevalent in sub-Saharan Africa. The disease is spread by black flies that carry parasitic worms (nematodes), which are transmitted to humans when the black flies bite. Jaenike proposes that nematodes may have a more difficult time growing and developing in black flies that are infected with a type of bacteria called Spiroplasma.

By introducing these bacteria into black fly populations and allowing them to spread naturally from generation to generation through inheritance, Jaenike hypothesizes that nematode populations could dwindle and incidences of River Blindness could be substantially reduced. Being infected with Spiroplasma may be advantageous for the black flies if the nematodes reduce the survival or reproduction of the flies, and this, in turn, could encourage the natural spread of Spiroplasma.

Grand Challenges Explorations is a five-year, $100-million initiative of the Gates Foundation to promote innovation in global health. It uses an agile, streamlined grant process. Proposals are reviewed and selected by a committee of foundation staff and external experts, and grant decisions are made within approximately three months of the close of the funding round.