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November 9, 2011

Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health Receives Grand Challenges Explorations Funding

The Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health announced today that it will receive funding through Grand Challenges Explorations, an initiative created by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation that enables researchers worldwide to test unorthodox ideas that address persistent health and development challenges. John Groopman, PhD, the Anna M. Baetjer Professor and Chair of the Bloomberg School’s Department of Environmental Health Sciences, will pursue an innovative global health research project, entitled “Aflatoxin as a Cause of Stunting at Birth” while Kerry Schulze, PhD, assistant scientist in the Center for Human Nutrition in the Department of International Health, will pursue a project entitled “Pathogenic Exposures and Stunting in South Asia.”

Grand Challenges Explorations funds scientists and researchers worldwide to explore ideas that can break the mold in how we solve persistent global health and development challenges. Groopman’s and Schulze’s projects are among 110 Grand Challenges Explorations grants announced on November 8.

“We believe in the power of innovation—that a single bold idea can pioneer solutions to our greatest health and development challenges,” said Chris Wilson, Director of Global Health Discovery for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. “Grand Challenges Explorations seeks to identify and fund these new ideas wherever they come from, allowing scientists, innovators and entrepreneurs to pursue the kinds of creative ideas and novel approaches that could help to accelerate the end of polio, cure HIV infection or improve sanitation.”

Projects that receive funding show promise in tackling priority global health issues where solutions do not yet exist.  This includes finding effective methods to eliminate or control infectious diseases such as polio and HIV as well as discovering new sanitation technologies.

To learn more about Grand Challenges Explorations, visit

The project “Aflatoxin as a Cause of Stunting at Birth” will determine whether aflatoxin exposure from food contamination during pregnancy causes fetal growth restriction, resulting in stunting at birth, as well as maternal inflammation.  Aflatoxin is a highly potent, naturally occurring agent produced by specific molds that widely contaminate staple grains, legumes and nuts that are widely consumed in low-income countries. The investigation utilizes plasma samples collected during pregnancy from women in Nepal, a population where malnutrition and low birthweight is common.  Low birthweight puts infants at increased risk of morbidity and mortality and sets infants on a typically unalterable trajectory of persistent growth restriction through infancy and childhood.

“Pathogenic Exposures and Stunting in South Asia,” will assess the contribution of aflatoxin, compromised gut integrity, and inflammation to poor growth in children of rural Bangladesh. Currently, data linking aflatoxin exposure to poor childhood growth are scant but compelling.  Growth retardation is common in communities where malnutrition and poverty prevail and it puts children at risk for impaired cognition and poor health.  Pathogenic exposures may limit nutrient absorption and utilization, perhaps explaining why efforts to improve growth of young children through nutritional interventions alone have typically achieved only modest results.  The study will be conducted among two year old children in Bangladesh, where half of all young children are stunted, and where investigators have been collecting data on socioeconomic status, growth, feeding practices and illness in the children who will be participating in the study, beginning early in their mothers’ pregnancies and continuing throughout the children's postnatal life.  This work is part of the "JiVitA Project," one of the largest community-based, nutrition research intervention projects in the world, where Johns Hopkins researchers at the Center for Human Nutrition in the Department of International Health work alongside Bangladeshi scientists to improve maternal and infant health and survival through better nutrition. Schulze directs the team's micronutrient analysis laboratory and is an experienced nutritional biochemist and public health scientist. 

The two projects will be conducted as a collaborative effort between the Department of Environmental Health Sciences and the Center for Human Nutrition in the Department of International Health.

About Grand Challenges Explorations

Grand Challenges Explorations is a US$100 million initiative funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.  Launched in 2008, Grand Challenges Explorations grants have already been awarded to nearly 500 researchers from over 40 countries.  The grant program is open to anyone from any discipline and from any organization.  The initiative uses an agile, accelerated grant-making process with short, two-page online applications and no preliminary data required.  Initial grants of $100,000 are awarded two times a year. Successful projects have an opportunity to receive a follow-on grant of up to US$1 million.

Media contact: Tim Parsons, director of Public Affairs, at 410-955-7619 or