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Doubled: NIH Achieves 5-Year Budgetary Goal, Genomics Research Stands to Gain

DENVER, Feb. 14-NIH Director Elias Zerhouni got an early valentine before he went to bed last night. A 10:00 pm e-mail informed him that the House and Senate had approved a $27.2 billion budget for his agency.


The 2003 appropriation, which now awaits President Bush's signature, fulfills a goal set five years ago to double the then $13.6 billion NIH budget. The 2003 figure is a $4 billion increase over the 2002 budget.


While staffers back in Bethesda pored over the 1,100-page hand-marked-up Senate document that had been scanned overnight and downloaded this morning, Zerhouni gave a rough outline of the agency's spending plans at the American Association for the Advancement of Science convention here today.


Listing gene and protein arrays first among technologies that he said have contributed to the increased complexity of work to be done by the biomedical community, Zerhouni, who, in his previous post as executive vice dean at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, established a microarray core facility, an informatics program, and a proteomics research effort, went on to describe several genomics-related initiatives on NIH's agenda.


To reverse the spiraling costs of medical care in the US Zerhouni said, "there's a need for new strategies and a need to take advantage of the revolution in biomedical sciences." Necessary approaches, he said, will include being able to understand diseases at the level of genes, proteins, and full dynamic systems. For instance, he noted, the financial burden of Alzheimer's disease could be halved if onset of the disease could be postponed by five years.


Included in a set of new trans-NIH priorities, Zerhouni said, are: promoting innovative approaches to systems biology; pushing the field toward more quantitative analysis of dynamic genome-wide expression patterns and their controls; comprehensive analysis of complex molecular networks and their regulation; and a dedicated effort to stimulate development of advanced research technologies. Zerhouni said the agency also intends to launch a systematic effort to enhance the national research infrastructure.


For example, he cited the need for publicly accessible molecular libraries such as an RNAi library. The national clinical research infrastructure is also in for a boost from NIH. Zerhouni said that inefficiencies in the clinical trials system need to be eradicated. NIH will support development of standards for the clinical research data system so that data can be reused. Currently, trial data are coded using seven different dictionaries, he said. "It's like running a country that speaks seven languages."


In addition, NIH will support the emerging trend toward "coordinated centers of research," Zerhouni said, by making new investments in disease-focused research centers. Zerhouni also said that the agency would address new threats such as biodefense and emerging or re-emerging infectious diseases, but gave no specifics about budgetary mandates.


Asked if Congress had inserted any specific language about biological-agent research into the appropriations document, a staffer in the NIH budget office told GenomeWeb it was too early to say. "We've been looking for that [in the document] but haven't found it in any obvious places," she said.

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