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Beryl Lieff Benderly

A “Passing Comment” Becomes a Scientific Opportunity

Kathleen Bongiovanni is “pretty low on the totem pole” at the Seattle Children’s Research Institute and, being a program manager, is not even technically a researcher. But a “passing comment” made by a senior medical expert gave her an idea that has already merited a $100,000 research grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. It may eventually be developed into a simple test that could save the lives of millions of premature babies in poor countries, reports Tom Paulson at Humanosphere, a website that reports on global health.

Nobody believed a young program manager like Bongiovanni could win a research grant from a prestigious foundation, but she applied anyway. Now she’s preparing to begin her study and  is even traveling to Uganda to look into organizing a pilot project there.

Bongiovanni’s brainwave occurred when, during a meeting, neonatologist Tom Hansen, MD, mentioned a test for respiratory distress that can kill premature babies that was used early in his career, but which has now been superseded in the United States by high-tech monitoring  methods. In the “old days,” Hansen said, doctors tested babies for the conditions by mixing alcohol with fluid obtained by amniocentesis. If the mixture was bubbly, the baby’s lungs were healthy. If not, the baby was in respiratory distress.

“My idea was to revamp the old test so that it can be used with oral fluid from a newborn’s mouth,” the article quotes Bongiovanni. “I thought to myself that this could be really useful in poor countries.” Thanks to her gumption in applying for a Gates Grand Challenges grant, she now has the chance to find out. And if she’s right, countless babies may survive infancy who otherwise wouldn’t.

It’s wonderful that something so cheap and simple might do so much good. And it’s possibly even more wonderful that someone of low academic status, whose colleagues “expressed doubt” (to put it mildly, I’ll bet) that she could succeed in attracting funding, will actually have the chance to put her elegant insight to the test. Who knows what brilliant ideas are hatching among people “not qualified” to receive funding? Here’s hoping that Bongiovanni was right; not only about her chances of winning the grant, but about saving babies as well.