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Screening NIH launches $89M network for small molecule screening


As part of the NIH Roadmap, two agency institutes have formed the Molecular Libraries Screening Centers Network with $88.9 million in grants. The money, which comes from NHGRI and the National Institute of Mental Health and will support a research network consisting of nine centers for the next three years, brings NIH funding further into the discovery process than ever.

That fact didn’t escape the pharmaceutical industry, which offered “a lot of pushback” initially, says Linda Brady, project team leader at NIMH. “There was a lot of concern that we were duplicating efforts.” But as the NIH team elaborated on its plans for the screening network, big pharma came around — to the point that they pitched in during the implementation phase to help review projects and identify compound selection criteria to build up the small molecule library, Brady adds.

This initiative adds to the existing intramural screening center run by Chris Austin at NHGRI. Principal investigators of the 10 centers met for their first steering committee in July to establish working groups. Those groups will help sort out practical issues about testing compounds, assay implementation, building up the small molecule library, some chemistry fundamentals, and IP and data sharing, says Brady. Meanwhile, she and her crew at NIH are in the process of selecting the first assays that will be used across the network. They’ll aim to have 20 or 30 assays (such as phenotypic and enzymatic), she says, and allow each center to choose the two or three assays that it will begin working with.

Brady says response to the network RFA was strong. “We had 38 centers that came in,” she says. The mix of academic centers and private-sector organizations was of such high quality that they gave Brady and her team “a tough choice.” The nine funded centers hail from Columbia University; Emory University; the Southern Research Institute; the Burnham Institute; Scripps Research Institute; University of New Mexico at Albuquerque; University of Pennsylvania; University of Pittsburgh; and Vanderbilt University.

The first three years of the network will be a pilot program, after which the centers will have to recompete for their funding. Whether grants will continue for as many centers is still undecided, says Brady.

If all goes well, these centers will help stimulate research into novel biological systems, Brady says. “We’re hoping that there’s a real sea change in how the academic environment works together to generate small molecule probes for use in biomedical research,” she adds. “And if during that process we are able to identify novel probes or targets for an orphan or rare disease, we would be very pleased.”

— Meredith Salisbury


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