The World Health Organization predicts that the Ebola virus could spread to as many as 1.4 million people worldwide. Helping to advance the development of therapies and diagnostics to fight this deadly virus are a number of Burroughs Wellcome Fund awardees. These scientists were funded, however, not because of their Ebola research projects, but because of the problem-solving and innovative thinking they bring to the research enterprise.
The researchers’ contributions to this worldwide effort underscores the importance of the Fund’s longstanding approach to supporting biomedical research by supporting the development of scientists rather than of projects. BWF grants provide researchers with the freedom and flexibility to pursue new avenues of inquiry and higher-risk research projects that could result in critical insights into Ebola and other diseases. We support individual researchers because they are creative, risk-takers, and rise to meet, and potentially solve, interesting and important challenges.
A recipient of two BWF grants, Erica Ollman Saphire, Ph.D., is one of the world’s leading Ebola researchers. In 2008, she solved the crystal structure of the spike-like glycoprotein – the viral molecule required for Ebola to enter a host cell – as it was bound to an antibody from a human survivor. The result generated what she described as a “roadmap for new treatment,” eventually leading to the development of the experimental drug ZMapp that has been used in the successful treatment of five Ebola patients.
Erica has many times expressed her gratitude for our funding, because her work is admittedly difficult and risky, which many funders shy away from. We believed in her talent and drive, and recognizing our ability as funders to take risks that the government or big business can’t necessarily take was funding justification for us.
While Ebola might not have been the initial focus of other BWF awardees, their work has given insight into other deadly infections and identified new paths for possible treatments that are being applied to Ebola. Here are three examples:
Flexible funding of intelligent and motivated individuals is critical to advancing human knowledge. BWF support opens opportunities for awardees to explore and branch out into new areas of study, and gives these opportunities room to develop through our multi-year funding approach. It is already beginning to pay dividends for those sick with Ebola, and I am confident that funding researchers in basic biomedical science will continue to pay off in the years to come.