In March of this year, Colombia heard some important news that had nothing to do with the country’s infamous drug trade. A Colombian scientist named Manuel E. Patarroyo published a study in Nature showing that an experimental vaccine he had developed was tantalizingly effective against malaria, a disease that threatens two-thirds of the world’s population.

Until then, the parasite that causes malaria had stubbornly resisted the efforts of hundreds of researchers in the U.S. and Europe to develop a vaccine. So how was a relatively obscure scientist from the Third World—one who has been forced to cope with poor funding, inadequate facilities, even terrorists—able to achieve the first promising results?

The answer is that innovation and creativity aren’t found only in well-funded, prestigious laboratories in the developed world. Patarroyo’s approach to creating a vaccine, for example, was particularly novel. He devised a mixture of three different synthetic peptides, each a...

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