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NIGMS to 'Transition' Protein Structure Initiative's Format after 2015

NEW YORK (GenomeWeb News) – The National Institute of General Medical Sciences said yesterday that it does not plan to renew the Protein Structure Initiative in its present form, as a large-scale initiative with a distinct set-aside budget, after the program completes its current five-year phase in 2015.

NIGMS said it decided to transition away from the current format for the PSI, which funds efforts to study and make widely available 3-D, atomic-level protein structures to support structural genomics research, after the program was reviewed by a panel of outside scientists and guidance was given by the National Advisory General Medical Sciences Council.

NIGMS Director Jon Lorsch said in a statement yesterday that the outside report suggested that NIGMS should begin planning to "transition the PSI from a set-aside model to other approaches that address opportunities and challenges in structural biology while preserving any elements of the program that provide significant benefit to the broader scientific community."

Lorsch said the decision fits with the institute's efforts "to examine all of our initiatives," particularly the large programs that were launched during the period a decade ago when the overall NIH budget was increased dramatically over a period of several years.

The first five-year phase of PSI kicked off in 2000 as a pilot program to demonstrate the feasibility of high-throughput structure determination. PSI shifted into a production phase in 2005 and began supporting investigators to use methods developed in the first phase to determine many unique protein structures and to continue developing new methods.

In 2010, the current PSI:Biology initiative was launched. Under this phase, NIGMS provides around $70 million annually to apply high-throughput structure determination to study a range of biological and biomedical problems.

So far, PSI investigators have determined more than 6,300 protein structures and made them publicly available, and they have developed more than 400 technologies and methods, many of which are now in use around the world, to facilitate the process of determining structures.

NIGMS said the program "has increased our understanding of protein biology, including how individual proteins interact with other molecules."

It is not clear yet what format the program will shift into after the current PSI:Biology wraps up. NIGMS said it is creating two committees, one comprised of internal staff and another of scientists from the research community, to advise on how to transition the program.

The PSI program is not the only large initiative NIGMS has been examining, as the current fiscal environment at the National Institutes of Health is markedly different than it was during the 'doubling' period, Lorsch explained in a blog post yesterday.

"In the current budget environment, in order to start a new program or bolster support for existing priorities such as investigator-initiated research, other programs must be adjusted or ended," Lorsch said.

"We have already begun carefully examining our existing portfolio of research initiatives and centers and considering how to balance continued support for them with other priorities and opportunities," he added.

According to Lorsch, the NAGMS Council discussed the future of PSI:Biology last week and heard the results of the outside evaluation team's report, which was intended as a mid-term review of the current phase of the program.

He said the evaluation team "found that PSI investigators have determined an impressive number of high-quality protein structures," and that the program has accomplished some things that could not have been achieved through standard, R01-type investigator-initiated grants.

However, Lorsch noted, the evaluators also suggested that PSI will reach a point where it does not require set-aside funding, and that NIGMS should begin planning to sunset the PSI funding, while being careful to identify resources that it developed that should be retained for the use of the biomedical research community.

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