Published 26 June 2011 by

Laying down the global health gauntlet

The panel on global health at the opening ceremony of the 61st Meeting of Nobel Laureates in Lindau well and truly laid the gauntlet down to young researchers from around the world. On the panel was: Bill Gates, chairman of Microsoft and co-founder of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation; Ada Yonath, Noble Laureate in Chemistry 2009 for her groundbreaking crystallography work revealing the structure and function of the ribosome; Sandra Chishimba, a malaria researcher from Zambia; and Jonathan Carlson, a researcher into HIV/AIDS at Microsoft Research.

Bill Gates said that we must pay more attention to the ‘silent voices’ in poor countries, who don’t have their medical needs met by funding from their governments or companies. It sounds unbelievable, but he told us that 10 times more research funding goes into finding a cure for male baldness than finding a cure for malaria – which kills 850,000 people a year.   


Global health panel opening ceremony

The panel (from l-r: Gates, Chishimba, the moderator Adam Smith, Yonath, Carlson), Photo: Rolf Schultes 

Gates asserts that doing basic research is really important to solving global health problems. He said that his foundation seeks out "people who are good imaging, people who are good at nanotechnology. Their basic thinking could apply to global health in the future." 

Ada Yonath recommends first identifying a problem, if not in global health, then related to global health. She advises: "Look for some indications you are going to make it. If you stick to them [it could result in] a new drug, procedure or understanding or immune response." 

Sandra Chishimba stressed the importance of scientific research to our well-being today. For instance, if someone had not worked on, and prioritised the smallpox vaccine, all of us would probably all have had it. Now, we need to prioritise malaria, she said. Her challenge laid down to the audience was simply: "We’ve all seen somebody suffering from a disease. So we should pay attention to such things as global health. We all need to be healthy." 

Jonathan Carlson encouraged the scientific community to find a way to share data, because the potential to help people is huge. He said: "We have been generating vast amounts of data. In HIV [research], we are looking at tonnes of data for T cell responses, B cell responses, tonnes of genetic data. But yet we have no way to officially merge this data. Think it’s a technical problem that is very achievable – to pool data and share it from different sources, and its solution will really help the lives of many." 

Aiming squarely at foundations and philanthropists, Yonath also called for more investment in research that was seen as a risk: "To fund the roots of the trees that will be fruitful later on. Tomorrow is another day but there is another day after tomorrow." 

Bill gates agreed this was the role of the foundation in the current straightened financial times – to take a risk on less experienced investigators, rather than proven researchers. However, he admitted they hadn’t yet completely cracked the way to fund novel research.