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Science & Technology

December 4, 2006
Volume 84, Number 49
pp. 66-67

Scientific Philanthropy

Scripps Chairman Moores Funds Institute To Fight Tropical Diseases

Stu Borman

Another important new initiative at Scripps Research Institute has been the establishment of the Worm Institute for Research & Medicine (WIRM), a unit dedicated to research on treatments for tropical worm diseases such as river blindness and guinea worm disease.

The institute, directed by professor of chemistry and immunology Kim D. Janda and located at Scripps's main campus in La Jolla, Calif., was established last year, based in large part on a founding donation from philanthropist John J. Moores. Moores is not only chairman of the board of Scripps but also owner of the San Diego Padres baseball team and founder of the River Blindness Foundation. The latter is now part of the Carter Center, an Atlanta-based nonprofit institute devoted to advancing human rights and alleviating human suffering that Moores also chairs.

Moores discussed his passion for research on tropical diseases with C&EN in a rare interview—he doesn't grant many—in the owner's suite at Petco Park, the Padres' home in San Diego.

Courtesy of JMI Services (Both)
Presentation In June, Janda (left photo) described his unit's research on tropical diseases to Moores (left in right photo), Carter, and others at the Carter Center in Atlanta.

One of WIRM's major current research targets is guinea worm disease. "The guinea worm is about a 30-inch worm that you can get by drinking dirty water," Moores said. "It develops in the body and erupts from skin. Former president Jimmy Carter got DuPont to design a durable filter cloth that can be used to filter water to prevent the disease. As a result, there were 3.5 million cases of guinea worm disease 25 years ago, there are only 10,000 left now, and it will be eradicated." WIRM is studying the guinea worm in hopes of stamping out the disease, which, like river blindness, disproportionately affects those in Africa.

"Our society doesn't care about people who live in sub-Saharan Africa," he said. "We spend a hell of a lot more money on pets than we do on poor people in Africa." Ironically, he noted that the pet medicine Heartgard and the river blindness medicine now distributed free by Merck, thanks to efforts of the River Blindness Foundation, are the same agent, Mectizan (ivermectin). "It was made for dogs and transferred over to humans," he said.

"Merck has given away hundreds of millions of dollars' worth of pills and has gotten almost no credit for it," Moores continued. "Nobody really noticed, but it was exactly the right thing to do. Former Merck chief executive officer Roy Vagelos made that decision years ago, and it was a wonderful thing."

The missing link, however, "is what Kim Janda is doing," Moores said. River blindness patients "require continuous retreatment with Mectizan if adult worms are still active in the body," but it currently is difficult to detect the presence of worms. "Kim's team is developing a test that will make eradication something that can be talked about. If we can come up with a good field test, it will be an earthshaking kind of event."

Moores said he has donated more than one-third of his wealth to scientific and other causes. "I'd like to earn a lot more so we can give it away." However, "my science background is incredibly weak," he added. "If I could go back and rewrite history, I would have gotten a degree in physics, chemistry, or something like that."

Janda said Moores "has asked my guys questions, and he does know the science. He has given us a generous donation—a $4 million endowment—to do basic research on Third World diseases, and he is keenly involved in every step we take. This is not typical. Usually in philanthropy, someone gives you money and then goes away, but not in his case. He really wants us to bring research to bear to eradicate disease."

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