With the pace of basic scientific research accelerating, the National Institutes of Health launched a program yesterday aimed at speeding the process of turning fundamental discoveries into medical treatments for patients.
The NIH announced plans to offer a new type of grant to medical research centers around the country to find innovative ways to bring together scientists who do not usually collaborate to move advances toward practical applications.
"We are truly at a crossroads in medicine," said NIH Director Elias A. Zerhouni, who briefed reporters in a teleconference. "The scientific advances of the past few years . . . dictate that we act now to encourage fundamental changes in how we do clinical research, and how we train the new generations of clinician scientists for the medical challenges of this century."
Under the program, the NIH, which has an annual budget of $28 billion, will award four to seven grants in the first year totaling $30 million, plus $11.5 million for 50 "planning grants" for institutions that are not ready to make full applications. The NIH will increase the grants each year after that so that by 2012 60 grants will be handed out, totaling $500 million per year, officials said. The money will come from existing NIH programs.
"We are taking great care to preserve the investigator-initiated research support pool in these times of constrained budgets," Zerhouni said.
The new program was spurred by growing concern that medical research institutions were ill-equipped to exploit practical applications of basic discoveries, a field of research known as "translational research."
"Translational research is the kind of research we do between a fundamental discovery and the application of that discovery to medicine," Zerhouni said. "People perceive that there is an increasing gap of knowledge between those two -- the bench and the bedside."
For example, one of the most exciting fields in biomedical research today is an area known as "proteomics," which is the study of proteins and the genes linked to them. Scientists have mapped the human genetic blueprint, which has led to an explosion of research into the proteins and how genes direct cells to produce them. The key now is to translate that explosion into treatments, Zerhouni said.
"The potential is enormous for progress, and this is what we want to stimulate," Zerhouni said. But, he added, that requires bringing together scientists from disparate fields who may not typically work together.
"What we want to do is create a real home, an intellectual home and place within that institution where they can come and work," said Zerhouni, who outlined the new program in this week's issue of the New England Journal of Medicine.
The program drew praise from scientists and advocacy groups.
"I think it's very exciting," said David Korn of the Association of American Medical Colleges. "It will be very interesting to see the kinds of proposals that come out."
Some, however, cautioned that the NIH needed to make sure the program, like the NIH's spending overall, treated all diseases equitably.
"With federal budgetary constraints eliminating NIH research funding increases, existing NIH funds must be redirected so that the goals of this new discipline are realized for all diseases and to ensure NIH allocations are fairer and more equitably distributed," said Richard Darling of the FAIR Foundation, an NIH watchdog group.