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NIAID to Fund New Genomics Center as Part of Plan to Fight Pathogens

WASHINGTON, Jan 22 – The National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases has put out a call for bids for a 5-year, approximately $25 million contract to establish a Pathogen Functional Genomics Resource Center as part of a stepped up government effort to use genomics research to battle pathogens.

NIAID, a division of the NIH, has also put in place a new funding mechanism for large-scale pathogen sequencing projects, providing up to $1.5 million per year for two years. NIAID is currently supporting the sequencing of over two dozen pathogens, including drug-resistant strains of Staphylococcus aureus .

" Genomics is so central to the understanding of the organism," said Dennis Dixon, chief of the bacteriology and mycology branch of the Division of Microbiology and Infectious Diseases at NIAID. " We're hoping to enable the research community to go from the whole genome sequence to functional genomics."

NIAID’s new project is part of the Department of Health and Human Services’ action plan, released last week, which emphasizes the need to use genomics technology to fight resistance in disease-causing microorganisms. The action plan was developed by a task force that was co-chaired by the NIH, the Centers for Disease Control, and the Food and Drug Administration, which are all HHS agencies. Seven other federal agencies also participated in the effort.

Among the top priority action items listed in the plan was using genomics technology to identify targets for the development of new rapid diagnostics and effective therapies. Developing tests for resistance genes and fostering cooperation between industry and the research community were also placed on the agenda. NIH will serve as coordinator for these tasks.

The report encouraged considering what role government should play in drug discovery and development where market incentives are limited, and streamlining the regulatory process to help bring drugs, vaccines, diagnostics and devices that address the antimicrobial resistance problem to market as rapidly as possible.

Drug-resistant pathogens are becoming an increasingly critical threat to public health. The development of penicillin and other antibiotics beginning in the 1940s led to a dramatic drop in deaths from infectious diseases. However, microorganisms can both mutate quickly and acquire resistance genes from other organisms, and extensive use of antimicrobial drugs exerts selective pressure for them to do so.

Today, common pathogens like Streptococcus pneumoniae , which causes pneumonia, ear infections, and meningitis, Staphylococcus aureus , which causes skin, bone, lung and bloodstream infections, and Escherichia coli , a cause of urinary tract infections, are increasingly resistant to available drugs. This threatens to roll back much of the progress made in treating infectious disease over the past 60 years.

Dixon said that the action plan helps to provide a framework and points of contact for interagency cooperation, facilitating work that is in many cases already underway. The genomics and pharmaceutical industries will also play an important part in the effort. A September, 2000 summit on infectious disease therapeutics at NIH brought together representatives from the federal agencies as well as pharmaceutical companies both large and small. Reagant sharing and other means of cooperation were discussed.

" No one individual or place can do it all," Dixon said. " Getting this plan released was our first step."

The proposal deadline for the Pathogen Functional Genomics Resource Center is March 15. The request for proposals is posted on NIAID's web site at http://www.niaid.nih.gov/contract/archive/RFP0202.pdf.

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