Kathleen Bongiovanni


How a passing comment on an old medical test won a $100K Gates grant | 

Tom Paulson

Gates Grand Challenges award winner Kathleen Bongiovanni demonstrates how a simple idea may save the lives of millions of premature babies

Earlier this week, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation announced the latest 100 winners of $100,000 grants from its Grand Challenges Exploration program aimed at supporting high-risk, creative approaches to improving health and fighting poverty in poor countries.

Celebrated for funding “wild” and “wacky” ideas, this year’s batch of Gates Grand Challenge winners included proposals to develop, as the AP reported, unmanned drones to deliver vaccines, tattoos for monitoring pregnancy and a “tuberculosis breathalyzer.”

The Seattle Times followed up with an overview of the three local winners:

  • Kathleen Bongiovanni, a program manager at Seattle Children’s Research Institute, won for proposing a simple test to identify premature babies.
  • Two immunization technology improvement teams at PATH also each won a $100,000 Gates grant. Lauren Franzel of PATH won to do research using bar codes to improve vaccine delivery logistics. PATH’s Shawn McGuire and Nancy Muller got support for work aimed finding better refrigeration techniques during vaccine transport in poor countries.

None of these three local winners’ projects sounded too wacky to me.

PATH has long been a leader in creating new vaccine technologies so not much surprise or wackiness or wildness there.

Bubble check diagnostics

No, the wildest story here is about how Bongiovanni got the idea for her project and applied for the Gates grant despite a bit of skepticism about her chances from more experienced colleagues.

“It was just a passing comment,” she explained. Bongiovanni works in program administration for a project focused on respiratory diseases caused by premature birth at Seattle Children’s Research Institute. She is, in fact, pretty low on the totem pole. Her mentor there, Dr. Tom Hansen, is an expert neonatalogist and, well, an old guy.

During a routine meeting, Bongiovanni overheard Hansen talking about the ‘old days’ and this abandoned method of testing babies for respiratory distress by combining routine amniocentesis fluid with alcohol.

Hansen mentioned it in passing, she said, as he went on to discuss more sophisticated, modern analytical means for diagnosing respiratory distress in newborns.

“Basically, you’re just looking for foam,” Bongiovanni said. “It’s a beautifully simple and cheap test.”

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