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In Spite of Flat NIH Budget, FY 2004 Likely to Be Boom Year For Proteomics Research

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It would seem like very bad news for proteomics companies and researchers that NIH funding will suffer next year, growing by only two to four percent — down from 15.9 percent growth in fiscal year 2003, according to a FY2004 draft budget approved early this month by the US Congress.

And yet it apparently isn’t. Thanks to the enthusiasm that the US government has for genomics-related technologies — and to its recent willingness to fund anything with the label “biodefense” — proteomics researchers, funders, and industry analysts agree that funding for proteomics research and technologies will not suffer significantly next year, but will instead continue to grow at a steady rate.

“There’s enough money for [proteomics] companies to grow in double digits,” said Kenneth Goldman, an analyst who covers mass spectrometry companies for Lehman brothers.

According to Goldman, growth for NIH research projects in FY2004 will decrease by only one percentage point, from 8.5 percent growth in FY2003 to about 7.5 percent, due to the priority that the NIH puts on research. “What the NIH will do is still skew the money the way they want to,” Goldman said. That means taking money that would have been spent on buildings and facilities, for example (the American Association for the Advancement of Science reported that spending in this area is slated to drop by 86 percent), and spending it on research projects instead.

Among the NIH research project money, an even greater piece of the pie will go to genomics and proteomics, areas that the NIH has been consistently emphasizing recently. In addition, NIH spending on biodefense is expected to double next year to about $5 billion and Goldman expects half of that to go to what the NIH calls “research resources,” including genomics and proteomics-based research. “If you have the foresight to put ‘bioterrorism’ or ‘AIDS’ into your budget request, your funding will be up for genomics and proteomics about 10 percent at least,” Goldman said.

Proteomics researchers also expressed confidence that they would not be hampered by the change in NIH funding. “I don’t think [the budget] will have as much of an effect on proteomics as it does on more traditional biology fields,” said Steven Gygi, an assistant professor and protein mass spectrometrist at Harvard Medical School. Gygi cited several new proteomics initiatives coming out of various institutes of the NIH as evidence that enthusiasm for the field was accelerating rather than waning. “By and large there’s more call for proteomics type research in the last year than I’ve seen in many years at the NIH,” he said.

Alexander Kurosky, professor of the University of Texas Medical Branch Biomolecular Resource Facility and director of a National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute-sponsored proteomics center noted the same trend. “I think the NHLBI led the way with their big effort of $157 million over seven years. The institutes kind of watch each other and they need to keep up with each other,” Kurosky said. Also, he noted, “I do think there is the awareness that proteomics will make an impact and that there are benefits to supporting this area of research.”

Christine Colvis, director of a National Institute on Drug Abuse neuroproteomics initiative that was introduced this April (see table p. 3), said proteomics research was definitely a hot area. “Because of mass spectrometry we’re actually able to do the science in a forward direction — to generate hypotheses rather than test them,” she said. “There’s tremendous strength in that.”

A look at recent initiatives at various NIH institutes confirms Gygi’s and Kurosky’s observations. At least five institutes aside from the NCI and NHLBI are already funding or are planning to fund proteomics initiatives. These include the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, the National Institute on Drug Abuse, the National Institute on Deafness and other Communication Disorders, the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, and the National Institute of General Medical Sciences (see table p. 3). Program directors at the NIDDK, NIDA, and NINDS all expressed confidence that their initiatives would continue to have sufficient funds — in fact, the NIDDK proteomics initiative receives additional funds outside of the normal NIDDK budget from a type 1 diabetes Special Statutory Funding Program. This program began allocating money in 1998 and just had its funding renewed to the tune of $150 million for five additional years until 2008. Any research proposal that would use proteomics technology to study type 1 diabetes and its complications would be eligible for these earmarked funds.

Biodefense initiatives with applications to proteomics are also in the works at the NIH. The Institute has already awarded UTMB a five-year biodefense grant for $5.5 million, and the university hopes that figure will soon grow considerably. UTMB has applied for a National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases-sponsored Regional Centers of Excellence in Biodefense and Emerging Infectious Diseases grant that would total $65 million in funding over five years. About $2.5 million of that grant would be slated for proteomics research, according to Kurosky.

All of this is ultimately good news for companies that sell proteomics technologies. Waters and Applied Biosystems declined to comment for this story, and Bruker investor relations officer Michael Willett said the NIH budget normally has “only a very minor effect” on Bruker’s business.

But Goldman said he suspected that “if NIH spending were suddenly flat in any given year, Bruker would feel it.” Luckily for Bruker, FY2004 should be anything but flat for the proteomics industry.

— KAM

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