VCU Receives Grand Challenges Explorations Grant for Research in Global Health and Development

Virginia Commonwealth University has announced that it is a Grand Challenges Explorations winner, an initiative funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

With the $100,000 grant, researchers from the VCU Institute for Women's Health, VCU schools of Medicine, Nursing, and World Studies in the VCU College of Humanities and Sciences, will work with two community partners in Ségou, Mali, to pursue an innovative global health and development research project, titled “Reducing Harmful Inflammation and Attenuating Immune System Deterioration in HIV-Infected Malian Women.”

 “This award will help us determine how certain beneficial intestinal bacteria in HIV-infected women in Africa relate to immune system function,” said principal investigator Daniel Nixon, D.O., Ph.D., director of the VCU HIV Center and associate professor in the Department of Internal Medicine. Patricia Cummins, Ph.D., professor of French in the VCU School of World Studies, and Saba Masho, M.D., associate professor of epidemiology and community health in the VCU School of Medicine, serve as co-principal investigators of the study.

“We hope this study will lead to new ways to improve the immune system and reduce infections in these at-risk individuals,” Nixon said.

Grand Challenges Explorations (GCE) funds individuals worldwide who are taking innovative approaches to some of the world’s toughest and most persistent global health and development challenges. GCE invests in the early stages of bold ideas that have the potential to solve the problems people in the developing world face every day. VCU’s project is one of more than 80 Grand Challenges Explorations Round 9 grants announced Nov. 1 by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. 

“Investments in innovative global health research are already paying off,” said Chris Wilson, director of Global Health Discovery and Translational Sciences at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. “We continue to be impressed by the novelty and innovative spirit of Grand Challenges Explorations projects and are enthusiastic about this exciting research. These investments hold real potential to yield new solutions to improve the health of millions of people in the developing world, and ensure that everyone has the chance to live a healthy productive life.”

The interdisciplinary team from VCU includes medical experts in HIV and community health and anthropologists and linguists who are experts on Malian culture and healthcare delivery. Together, these experts propose to “help adapt U.S. science to West African conditions.”

According to Nixon, “HIV-infected individuals can suffer alterations of the type of bacteria they have in their intestines. These changes may in turn promote adverse effects on the immune system, leading to HIV disease progression.” The VCU pilot study will use sophisticated molecular techniques to assess the gut bacteria and the immune system before and after the administration of beneficial “probiotic” bacteria. 

“It is hoped that these bacteria may help normalize gut bacteria-immune system relationships," said Nixon, the VCU lead investigator for two National Institutes of Health-funded HIV clinical trials networks.

To receive funding, the VCU team and other Grand Challenges Explorations Round 9 winners demonstrated in a two-page online application a creative idea in one of five critical global heath and development topic areas that included agriculture development, immunization and communications. Applications for the current open round, Grand Challenges Explorations Round 10, will be accepted through Nov. 7, 2012. 

Because this intervention may be of greatest benefit to those individuals who lack access to conventional HIV treatments, the study will be performed in two community-owned health clinics that provide basic health services to 60,000 people in Ségou, Mali, West Africa. To do this, Nixon will partner with:

  • Patricia Cummins, Ph.D., co-principal investigator of the study and professor of French in the VCU School of World Studies. Cummins is vice chair of Richmond Sister Cities Commission, which works closely with Virginia Friends of Mali;
  • Saba Masho, M.D., co-principal investigator of the study and associate professor of epidemiology and community health in the VCU School of Medicine. Masho is an expert in health disparities and comprehensive care for underserved pregnant women;
  • Susan Kornstein, M.D., professor of psychiatry and obstetrics and gynecology in the VCU School of Medicine and executive director of the Institute for Women’s Health. She facilitated proposal development for this interdisciplinary project through the institute;
  • Nancy Jallo, Ph.D., assistant professor in the VCU School of Nursing, who is an expert on maternal care and volunteers with Physicians for Peace, which is working on a joint project to develop a blood center in Mali;
  • Christopher A. Brooks, Ph.D., professor of anthropology, coordinator of the Anthropology program and Member of the School of World Studies Executive Committee. Brooks has a recent book on men with HIV in South Africa and researches the virus in other African countries. He will tell the story of the grant project as an ethnographer;
  • Michelle Elcoat Poulton, Ph.D., affiliate professor in the VCU School of World Studies, obtained more than $60-million in major grants in her role as CEO of Save the Children in Mali and in her role as Vice President for International Programs for Christian Children's Fund / Child Fund International in Richmond.  She established a partnership between CCF / CFI and the School of World Studies that continues today;
  • Robin Poulton, Ph.D., affiliate professor in the VCU School of World Studies and a United Nations Fellow with frequent assignments in Africa.  He is interested in facilitating connections to expand medical resources within Mali and Africa, and he was a key facilitator in obtaining a previous Gates Foundation grant in Ségou and worked in both French and English with key players in the U.S. and Mali;
  • Mark Reimers, Ph.D., biostaticians with the VCU Virginia Institute for Psychiatric and Behavioral Genetics, will participate in data collection for this project; and
  • Clinicians in Mali including Diabate Fatimata Sambou, M.D., whose support, along with that of the patients, Ségou's Mayor and city council and the Malian Ministry have made this study possible. Segou City Councilman Madani Sissoko, who chairs the Sister City Commission in Segou, is at VCU from October - December 2012 taking English lessons and working with the grant team.

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Patricia Cummins, Ph.D.
Patricia Cummins, Ph.D.
Daniel Nixon, D.O., Ph.D.
Daniel Nixon, D.O., Ph.D.
Saba W. Masho, M.D.
Saba W. Masho, M.D.