U.S. Medical Research Gets $600 Million From Institute

By Philip Rucker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 27, 2008

One of the world's largest private philanthropies will announce today a $600 million initiative to fund risky but potentially lifesaving medical research by 56 of America's top scientists.

The Howard Hughes Medical Institute is expanding its flagship investigators program to nurture a new class of scientists. By endowing scientists' research over many years, the institute hopes they will make major discoveries in a variety of fields, including genetics and biology.

The scientists, chosen from more than 1,000 applicants, said they want to answer such ambitious questions as how global climate change affects the spread of cholera, malaria and other infectious diseases and whether doctors can apply the engineering behind the building of airplanes and computers to the human immune system.

The initiative comes as scientists are sounding alarms about a slump in federal research funding since 2003, saying it has starved potentially groundbreaking research projects of cash and could jeopardize the country's dominance in science against growing competition in Europe and China.

Private philanthropies -- led by the Chevy Chase-based nonprofit organization founded by Howard R. Hughes, the late aviator, engineer and film producer -- are helping fill this gap by lavishing money on research that many grantmakers would consider too risky but that could produce the greatest breakthroughs.

"We identify the best people and then free them up to do what they want to do and to be flexible and change directions and follow their noses into new fields," Hughes Institute President Thomas R. Cech said.

Just as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is showering grants on programs to improve U.S. education and global health, the Hughes Institute is trying to foster long-term advances in medicine.

"Today's medicine is the beneficiary of scientific inquiry that took place decades ago," Cech said. "Our goal in funding the basic biomedical sciences is to lay the groundwork for the medical discoveries that will take place 20, 30, 40 years from now."

The 42 men and 14 women who will be named Hughes investigators today come from 31 universities and research institutions across the country, including Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. They will continue to work at their institutions but will become employees of the Hughes Institute, joining about 300 Hughes investigators.

One new investigator is Mercedes Pascual, who was born in Uruguay, grew up in Argentina and Brazil and now has a lab at the University of Michigan. She is trying to determine how global climate change affects outbreaks of infectious diseases.

Pascual wants to build a mathematical model to help scientists identify when and how cholera, malaria and other diseases might balloon into epidemics, enabling public health agencies to prepare for, or even preempt, deadly outbreaks.

But Pascual's research is uncertain. She could toil for years without developing the model. The work is so risky, she said, that she probably would not receive grants from other sources, including the federal government's National Institutes of Health.

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