University of Pretoria receives $100,000 Grand Challenges Explorations Grant for Innovative Global Health Research by Prof Walter Focke

Prof Focke’s project is one of 81 grants announced by the Gates Foundation in the second funding round of Grand Challenges Explorations, an initiative to help scientists around the world explore bold and largely unproven ways to improve health in developing countries. The grants were provided to scientists in 17 countries on six continents.

To receive funding, Prof Focke showed in a two-page application how his idea falls outside current scientific paradigms and might lead to significant advances in global health. The initiative is highly competitive, receiving more than 3 000 proposals in this round.

Malaria causes approximately one million deaths a year and more than 300 million cases of severe illness. The World Health Organization regards indoor residual spraying (IRS) as a primary mosquito control intervention to reduce and eliminate malaria transmission. In developing countries such as South Africa, DDT is currently used for indoor residual spraying.

With DDT an annual application may suffice, whereas, safer WHO-approved alternatives may require up to 2-4 spray cycles. The problem with DDT is that it is a persistent organic pollutant (POP) accumulating in animal tissue. Consequently its use for indoor residual spraying is contentious and risky. The need for a noncontroversial, environmentally friendly, and affordable alternative to DDT is, therefore, a high priority. The ultimate intended outcome of the project proposed by Prof Focke’s group is a cost-effective and environmentally stable pesticide-based “whitewash” or equivalent “paint” to substitute DDT in indoor residual spraying.

Prof Walter Focke obtained a master’s degree in Chemical Engineering from the University of Pretoria and a PhD from MIT. He is a Full Professor in the Department of Chemical Engineering and is currently the Director of the Institute of Applied Materials (IAM) at the University of Pretoria. The IAM conducts research in polymer compounds, carbon materials, nanoclays, and chemical product design.

“We are highly honoured and very excited by this grant. It will help our research group make an impact in the fight against malaria,” said Prof Focke.

Professor Calie Pistorius, Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the University of Pretoria, welcomed the grant that Prof Focke received from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. “I would like to congratulate Prof Focke as a recipient of this grant and also thank the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation for giving him the grant. Prof Focke’s research shows that the University of Pretoria strives for continuous innovation and further research solutions,” he said.

“The winners of these grants are doing truly exciting and innovative work,” said Dr Tachi Yamada, President of the Gates Foundation’s Global Health Program. “I’m optimistic that some of these exploratory projects will lead to life-saving breakthroughs for people in the world’s poorest countries.”

About Grand Challenges Explorations

Grand Challenges Explorations is a five-year, $100 million initiative of the Gates Foundation to promote innovation in global health. The programme uses an agile, streamlined grant process – applications are limited to two pages, and preliminary data is not required. 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.

Applications for the next round of Grand Challenges Explorations are being accepted through May 28, 2009. Grant application instructions, including the list of topic areas in which proposals are currently being accepted, are available at the Grand Challenges Explorations website (

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