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Proteomics Set to Benefit from Congress's Stimulus Funding to NIH

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Scientists, including proteomics researchers, stand to gain from the recently passed stimulus package.

Last week, the National Institutes of Health announced a host of new funding opportunities for researchers courtesy of the $787 billion stimulus package signed into law by President Obama last month.

It includes a new program that could provide $200 million in grants to scientific researchers, including those in proteomics, and additional funding for the purchases of shared instrumentation and capital research equipment and for the construction of new non-federal research facilities or repair or renovation of existing facilities.

The new $200 million Initiative, called NIH Challenge Grants in Health and Science Research, is directed at new areas of research or new technologies that could immediately benefit from the funding. Included are numerous awards directed specifically at proteomics research and others with possible proteomics angles.

Funding will be for two years, covering fiscal 2009, which started on Oct. 1, 2008, and fiscal 2010, which will begin Oct. 1. The agency anticipates making 200 grants under the new program, each up to $1 million in total costs, depending on the quality of the applications and availability of funds.

Information about the initiative and how to apply for it can be found here. The deadline for applying is April 27.

The program supports research for so-called "Challenge Topics" that address specific "scientific and health research challenges in biomedical and behavioral research that will benefit from significant two-year jumpstart funds," the US Department of Health and Human Services, of which NIH is part, said in an announcement of the funds.

Such challenges, it added, "focus on specific knowledge gaps, scientific opportunities, new technologies, data generation, or research methods that would benefit from an influx of funds to quickly advance the area in significant ways. The research in these areas should have a high impact in biomedical or behavioral science and/or public health."

The Challenge Grants cover a broad swath of topics across 29 NIH institutions, centers, and offices, including health disparities; health behaviors; new technology development; and clinical trial design.

The NIH has identified a bolus of topics for the highest priority under the Challenge Grants program, including several biomarker-specific projects as well as RFAs to develop technologies for proteomics research such as mass spectrometry.

In addition to the Challenge Grants, NIH received new funding for existing programs: The National Center for Research Resources is getting $300 million under the stimulus bill to fund proposals for shared instruments and other capital research equipment, and $1 billion to fund proposals for build new research facilities or renovate old ones.

Information about applying for instrument grants can be found here and here.
Information about facility improvement grants can be found here.

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Risky No More

The new funding to NIH, totaling $10.4 billion, is part of Washington's efforts to revive the down-in-the-dumps economy, and is on top of roughly $29 billion the agency receives annually for its budget.

The additional money arrives after what has been seen as financially an especially arid period for the NIH during which federal spending on research was at best flat.

In proteomics, NIH spending in FY 2008 slid 3 percent while the number of grants shrunk by 8 percent compared to FY 2007 [See PM 02/05/09].

Jay Fox, a professor of microbiology and assistant dean for research support at the University of Virginia School of Medicine, oversees 14 research facilities at the school. While he said that funding for new equipment has "by and large … not been terrible," and the NCRR has done a "very good job trying to husband their resources" to get money to core facilities, some researcher needs went unaddressed during the past few years.

Despite the advent of new genomics and proteomics technologies over the past few years, "a lot of institutions haven't adopted [them] yet because of the lack of funds. …So having this additional funding going into the NCRR … will really reach down and put some of the technology that many of the cores have yet to acquire in their operations much sooner than it would've happened without it," he said. Fox was also president of the Association of Biomolecular Resource Facilities from 2005 to 2007.

In his own facilities, he said he has found ways to acquire instruments despite the recent budget environment, but "maybe not as quickly as we would've liked," and with perhaps a little more hoop-jumping in the application process. He also has looked to sources outside of the NIH to subsidize equipment purchases.

With new funding opportunities from the NIH, Fox said that he anticipates new research being conducted that couldn't before, particularly work that may have been "too risky. … It's also going to help a lot of people keep their scientific programs moving forward with the hope that in two years time or further out, the funding climate for the NIH will stabilize."

Within the Challenge Grants, he said he is especially interested in grants being administered by the National Cancer Institute directed at the use of proteomics for pancreatic cancer research.

In a research note issued last month by investment firm Leerink Swann, analyst Isaac Ro said the additional NIH money should help not only academic researchers, but tools vendors as well, and called it "a meaningful positive for life-science tools names," including mass-spectrometry manufacturers such as Life Technologies and Thermo Fisher Scientific, which derive 20 percent to 85 percent of their sales from academic and government sources.

Of special importance, Ro wrote, is that while the $10.4 billion is to be disbursed to NIH in FY 2009 and FY 2010, the "actual outlay" of the funds — or spending of the money by NIH — is spread over seven years, though the bulk of it, $8 billion, will be spent in the first two years.

"[The] timing of outlays is of interest because people want to know how quickly the stimulus money flows through to actually drive sales of research products," Ro said to ProteoMonitor in an e-mail.

In his report he further wrote that "We view the magnitude and timing of these funds as favorable for the [life-science tools business] as visibility is now materially improved for a major end market" — academic and government labs — "at a time when other major end markets" — industrials and drug companies — "remain highly uncertain."

At Pittcon this week, mass spec vendors said they are encouraged by the new funding even though they were uncertain about when the benefits would trickle down to their level. Marc Caspar, executive vice president and COO of Thermo Fisher Scientific, said that it is "still early days, but obviously this is good news for our industry."

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Even before the current economic crisis had fully formed, Agilent Technologies had embarked on a mission to increase its footprint in the academic/government research sector. This week, Nick Roelofs, vice president and general manager of Agilent's Life Sciences Solutions unit, told ProteoMonitor that with the new and renewed funding to NIH, that strategy takes on even more meaning.

"Most governments that are doing stimulus [packages], and certainly the United States government in its stimulus, aren't handing money to Exxon Mobil or to Pfizer. They're handing that stimulus money to the NIH, NSF… and to FDA," he said.

With the Obama administration pushing for the NIH to spend the money sooner rather than later, Roelofs added that he expects vendors such as Agilent to start seeing the effects starting in the late second quarter to early fourth quarter.

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