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Building a Biodefense Grant

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Barbara Mulach and Maria Giovanni, both members of NIAID, regularly attend meetings and host talks, spending much of their time trying to stir up interest in biodefense research among scientists. “We’re very aware of trying to bring new people into biodefense because there haven’t been that many people working on [it],” says Giovanni, assistant director for microbial genomics and advanced technologies. So far, she adds, “there’s been a huge response.”

Research dollars targeted at homeland security applications have grown by leaps and bounds in the past few years, and even at a time when funding increases are all too scarce for other research applications, there’s nothing to indicate that the growth trend is changing for security needs. This year, NIAID expects to spend $1.6 billion — or a little more than a third of its budget, Giovanni says — on biodefense. The US Department of Homeland Security, which is seeking a budget of $40.2 billion this year, recently earmarked $2.5 billion for Project BioShield, including a sizable chunk for scientific research efforts. DARPA and DOD have their own pots of funds — and, to paraphrase 1950s and ’60s Senator Everett Dirksen, when you add it up, you start to get serious money.

Small wonder, then, that more and more scientists involved in systems biology — genomics and proteomics researchers in particular — are aligning their studies with homeland security goals. Even basic biological research to better understand an organism could fall under the biodefense umbrella, if that organism happens to be on the government’s list of select agents expected to be used in a bioweapons attack.

So how do you get your piece of the pie? Not so fast, says George Poste, chair of the DOD’s bioterrorism task force. Poste says the first step is to make sure you actually want to be involved in biodefense research for more than the dollar value. “There is a huge volume of absolutely trivial proposals that reflect an absolute absence of any understanding of the bioterrorism problem whatsoever,” he says. “The system is swamped with [irrelevant] applications.”

That’s not to say there’s no need for new research — Poste would be among the first to point that out — but it does mean that, should you choose to throw your hat in this ring, you’re going up against increasingly stiff competition for the funds, so you want to make sure that what you’re proposing is really worth the effort you’ll have to put in.

Genome Technology offers the following guide to demonstrate what experts see as the most pressing needs for this kind of research, where to seek funding, and advice from people who have already won homeland security grants.

Research needs

The most basic need — and perhaps the most obvious to early-stage researchers like those involved in genomics and proteomics — is uncovering “the basic biology of the organism/host response” for the select agents prioritized by the biodefense community, including threats like Yersinia pestis and Bacillus anthracis, says NIAID’s Giovanni. “There’s a lot of research that needs to be done.”

“Our mantra is always basic research, vaccines, therapeutics, and diagnostics,” says Mulach, who works in the office of the director for the division of microbiology and infectious disease at NIAID. “A lot of these areas require genomic and proteomic capabilities.”

Jan Walker, a spokeswoman for DARPA, says her agency is focusing on sensors and detectors as well as on barriers to prevent pathogens from infecting humans, countermeasures for biomedically dealing with an attack once it happens, and diagnostics to figure out who’s been exposed and to which agent. Genomics and proteomics research could prove critical to any of these goals, and Walker notes that “we’re focused on what we want to do without saying the technique to get there.” The idea is to leave research opportunities open to people with innovative ideas and encourage scientists from all fields to try to solve the problems at hand.

John Vitko, director of biological and chemical defense at the Department of Homeland Security, says that biodetectors are a key technology he’s looking for in the next wave of research. These would rely on some kind of biosignature to run frequent tests on air, food, or water supplies to detect the release of possible threats. The ideal tool: “We want it to be ultra-sensitive, but you don’t want it to [give a] false alarm,” Vitko says. That means having “the right signatures that will allow high sensitivity and extremely high specificity.”

Another side to this research, Vitko says, is having some kind of technology that could be used in a forensics capacity — examining a released threat, such as the anthrax sent around the US in late 2001 — that would help security teams figure out how the threat was engineered and delivered, and where it might’ve come from.

Poste at the DOD says one of the most critical research gaps that needs to be filled is a better understanding of an organism’s innate immunity. That capacity gives scientists the potential ability to “amplify host defense against a variety of agents,” theoretically protecting people in the event that a bioweapon of some kind is released.

Also, Poste says, “having a series of molecular probes, whether they be genomic or proteomic, will be valuable from the diagnostic standpoint and also from the forensic standpoint.” Just as last year’s SARS epidemic illustrated, he adds, “sequencing the genome doesn’t automatically translate quickly to a therapy or vaccine.”

Where’s the money?

All the research opportunities in the world don’t mean much if you don’t know where to get funding. Fortunately, that’s one thing the homeland security folks can’t seem to emphasize enough — most agencies’ websites have searchable or at least easy-to-use funding announcement pages (see box for some websites with funds listings). DHS and NIAID in particular direct scientists to their sites to see calls for proposals.

Mulach at NIAID says researchers should keep up with new funding mechanisms as well. Her institute is working to facilitate partnerships and cooperative research programs, she says, with an eye toward building teams of researchers. “That really is the new way of funding science, is the multidisciplinary teams,” says NIAID’s Giovanni.

DHS also has high hopes for teaming, and has set up a website to pair up teams that may have complementary research projects or technologies. “We want end-to-end capabilities,” says David Bolka, director of the DHS advanced research projects agency. “But we recognize that not all of the respondents will be [experts in a full system].” Scientists looking to work with DHS can browse the agency’s teaming website to “look for a partner with whom to team with,” Bolka adds. “In most cases if someone has a portion of the solution we’d be interested in seeing it.”

In addition to a tour of the websites, opportunities for grants and contracts abound. An early initiative through NIAID included grants worth approximately $350 million for five years to establish eight RCEs, or Regional Centers of Excellence for Biodefense and Emerging Infectious Diseases Research. These multidisciplinary centers are based primarily at universities and typically are the hub of several institutions partnered across a geographic region. The eight currently funded RCEs are centered at Duke University, Harvard Medical School, New York State Department of Health, University of Chicago, University of Maryland, the University of Texas Medical Branch, University of Washington, and Washington University in St. Louis.

Those centers are in charge of distributing funds in addition to performing their own research, so they’re a smart place to start looking for opportunities for genomics and proteomics researchers, says Jennie Lovett, project manager at the Midwest RCE. Her center comprises partner institutions Washington University, St. Louis University, the Midwest Research Institute, Case Western Reserve University, and the University of Missouri-Columbia. Researchers in the encompassed area — Missouri, Nebraska, Iowa, Kansas, and part of Ohio — would do well to check in on availability of small developmental grants, says Lovett, adding that the MRCE plans to fund 10 such grants annually in addition to its stable of internal research programs aimed at biodefense or infectious disease. “They’re small awards but I think they get people started,” she says. Scientists should check in with the center for their own region, she adds.

For a larger chunk of change, you’ll want to go straight to the major agencies. DOD has assigned more than $800 million each year to chemical and biological defense programs specifically aimed at developing new technologies to meet potential threats. DARPA’s coffers, while much smaller, also contribute: the unit has roughly $150 million per year to fund research into threat detection and biomedical countermeasures for a potential attack.

Of the DHS’s deep pockets, says Vitko, “several tens of millions of dollars per year” go to research focused on threat detection, and “maybe a couple of tens of millions” are for assay development. That money covers both internal and external research, Vitko notes.

Those in the know

After you’ve tracked down the call for applications comes the hard part: writing your grant or contract proposal. The most important element to keep in mind, says Lovett at MRCE, is “to be innovative. It’s easy to come up with the one or two things that everybody knows or the next questions that need to be answered.” Successful candidates will be the ones who go a step beyond, such as linking their research to the possibility for diagnostics or improved vaccine delivery, for example. “These are the things that we feel will provide the most bang for the buck,” she adds. “They’re not just an academic exercise, but really [something] to make a difference in everyday life.”

David Hoey, vice president of business development at US Genomics, helped shepherd his company’s proposal — using DNA fragments as a way to detect bioweapons that may have been released — through to a $7.5 million grant from HSARPA. The competition’s fierce: US Genomics, he notes, was one of six funded organizations; more than 1,500 separate organizations had entered the proposal phase.

As usual, Mulach says, a good litmus test for whether your research will fit a particular agency is to look over expired calls for proposals (available on the NIAID website) to see what’s been funded in the past. It’s also a good way to keep up with how new funding mechanisms work, she says.

Web Watch

To learn more about research opportunities in homeland security applications, check out the following websites:

Fedbizopps.gov
Business opportunities and contract calls from anywhere in the federal government

Solicitations for proposals and researcher-teaming website from DHS

Hsarpasbir.com
Small business innovation research opportunities from DHS

Niaid.nih.gov/biodefense
NIAID’s biodefense program website, with links to funding opportunities and research agenda

Dhs.gov
Overview page for DHS, includes links for research and technology

Darpa.mil
Main DARPA website, which has links for SBIR and other research funding alternatives

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