This article has been corrected from a previous version, which incorrectly stated that Craig Venter left the NIH to sequence the human genome. In fact, Venter left the NIH to found the Institute for Genomic Research.
NEW YORK, Sept. 30 (GenomeWeb News) - Elias Zerhouni, director of the National Institutes of Health, unveiled a new set of initiatives he said are a means of "turbo-charging NIH," at a press conference held at the National Press Club in Washington, DC this morning.
This new effort, dubbed the NIH Roadmap for Medical Research, will be funded with $2.1 billion over the next five years including $130 million in FY 2004, NIH officials said in a press conference today. It includes 28 initiatives that will be carried out by nine implementation groups arranged under three main themes: New Pathways to Discovery, Research Teams of the Future, and Re-engineering the Clinical Research Enterprise. Systems biology and inter-agency collaboration will be key themes in the initiatives.
Additionally, the roadmap creates a position, the director's liason for public-private partnership in order to facilitate collaborations researchers inside and outside of industry and big pharma.
The idea behind the effort is to apply the stringency and scrutiny of the peer review process to the entire NIH portfolio, and to fill in major gaps in biomedical research that no single agency can tackle alone, Zerhouni and others indicated.
"We aim to engage members of discrete disciplines to join together," said Stephen Straus, director of the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine. "This fusion of disciplines may yield unexpected results."
Developed with input from more than 300 biomedical experts in academia, industry, government, and the public, the roadmap "builds on the tremendous progress in medical research achieved, in part, through the recent doubling of the NIH budget," NIH said.
This roadmap comes just two months after a report released by the Institute of Medicine which recommended a restructuring of NIH. The report called for the merger of the NHGRI and the NIGMS. While Zerhouni said the institute has been working on the initiatives for the past 12 months, he did acknowledge the report, adding that "no organization the size of NIH should be without a process for reevaluating its structure."
NHGRI director Francis Collins told GenomeWeb's sister publication, Genome Technology, that he was pleased by the new initiative. "We love this stuff," he said. NHGRI's own five-year plans included goals that "we knew were outside our ability to do alone, and we needed broad cross-institute collaboration " to achieve these goals.
In general, these new initiatives will provide a framework for giving grants to established labs, and to people outside of NIH who want to start a lab.
It would seem that researchers who already do their work in institutions that have systems biology programs would have a leg up on grants under the roadmap, but Zerhouni would only said that "the agency's goal is to stimulate systems biology in different models of interdisciplinary research," and that "there's no doubt the priorities of the agencies are the priorities of the world."
Systems Biology, High-Risk Research Prioritized
Specifically, the implementation groups under the theme of New Pathways to Discovery are Bioinformatics and Computational Biology, Structural Biology, Building Blocks and Pathways, Molecular Libraries and Molecular Imaging, and Nanomedicine. NIH said that resources developed under this area would include an improved computational infrastructure for biomedical research, libraries of chemical molecules, new molecular and cellular imaging tools, and nano-scale technology devices for viewing and interacting with basic life processes.
Under Research Teams of the Future, three implementation groups -- High-Risk Research, Interdisciplinary Research, and Public-Private Partnerships -- will work to "stimulate new ways of combining skills and disciplines in both the physical and biological sciences."
This high-risk research awards will each total $500,000 per year for five year periods. Collins said that this initiative comes in response to the peer-review process, which favors lower-risk research. "We haven't served innovators well," he said. "Innovators have trouble in the peer review process, with priority scores of 300." [The best possible score a researcher can get in his process is 100, with scores getting worse as they go higher.]
Zerhouni later acknowledged that someone like Craig Venter, who left NIH to found The Institute for Genomic Research, might have been able to get a grant under this high-risk grant program.
Seven implementation groups under the theme of Re-engineering Clinical Research will promote the creation of integrated networks of academic centers that work jointly on clinical trials -- a departure from the current system, in which all research for a clinical trial is conducted in one academic center. "Implementing this vision will require new ways to organize the way clinical research information is recorded, new standards for clinical research protocols, modern information technology, new models of cooperation between NIH and patient advocacy alliances, and new strategies to re-energize the clinical research workforce," according to an NIH statement.
Funding opportunities in four main areas -- Metabolomics Technology Development, Exploratory Centers for Interdisciplinary Research, National Technology Centers for Networks and Pathways, and National Centers for Biomedical Computing -- are available here. Some initiatives will be funded right away, whereas other areas, including interdisciplinary research centers, will just receive planning grants for the first few years, as sequencing centers initially received, Collins said.
"Through these new initiatives, we hope to remove some of the biggest roadblocks that are keeping research findings from reaching the public as swiftly as possible," Zerhouni said in a statement.