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Monday, October 4, 2004


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NIH Roadmap Accelerates

Bethesda, Maryland — One year after launching the NIH Roadmap for Medical Research, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) has made significant progress toward accelerating the pace of discovery.

Newly funded projects aim to ramp up the efficiency of the medical research enterprise by orders of magnitude. Among these are innovative programs to train clinical researchers and to fund highly creative thinkers, a nationwide interconnected network of biocomputing centers, and projects supporting the development of a diverse array of small molecules and imaging probes freely available to all researchers.

"The bold vision of the NIH Roadmap promises to pay off enormously for America's health," said Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy G. Thompson. "The Roadmap is a critical step toward improving the quality of life through scientific and technological innovation."

The scientific community's response to NIH Roadmap solicitations has been robust, yielding many more new grant applications than expected. In establishing the Roadmap, NIH purposefully intended to usher new researchers and new fields into the fold.

"We know that today's scientific landscape demands new ways of thinking, and we know we need to introduce a new paradigm for the conduct of medical research," said NIH Director Elias A. Zerhouni, M.D. "That's what the Roadmap is all about — creating a supportive environment for scientists and their ideas to come together in ways we've never seen before."

Team science is an underlying current of the entire NIH Roadmap effort. Such new approaches to research call for increased flexibility and innovative modes of scientific collaboration. Offering scientists from different fields equal status as funded investigators on certain joint projects is one way NIH is attempting to break down the walls that bar productive teamwork. Another method has been to modify NIH grant application instructions to eliminate fiscal disincentives of establishing consortia. And with the new NIH Director’s Pioneer Award program, NIH has provided five years of funding to each of nine exceptionally creative people, encouraging these scientists to pursue their highly innovative ideas with unprecedented intellectual freedom.

"Tomorrow's breakthroughs hinge on letting creative minds take chances," said Dr. Zerhouni. "Through the Pioneer Award program, NIH is experimenting with how to alter scientific review practices to accommodate very creative projects that may have no proven track record for success, but whose outcome could well change medical practice in dramatic ways."

Future initiatives include regional centers for translational research and specialized nanomedicine facilities. These and many other Roadmap initiatives are currently under development, in consultation with NIH stakeholders. In addition, several of the currently funded Roadmap initiatives will be reannounced so that scientists who missed the first opportunity can apply next year for Roadmap funds.

NIH Roadmap initiatives fall within three overarching themes that are applicable across all areas of science. Researchers from any discipline are free to apply for any of the awards. In fiscal year 2004, NIH awarded $64 million to projects within the New Pathways to Discovery theme, $27 million to Research Teams of the Future projects, and $38 million to projects within the Re-Engineering the Clinical Research Enterprise theme. Selected highlights of recently funded projects within each theme appear below.

New Pathways to Discovery

As the scientific landscape evolves, researchers must have the ability to accurately measure biological processes in real time, in living samples. Several Roadmap projects within this theme were designed to develop a 21st-century toolkit that will enable scientists to better understand the workings of biological systems.

The activities within this theme are forging new links between chemistry and biology. Newly funded programs will yield novel ways to generate and study small molecules, including exquisitely sensitive imaging probes. Such resources will help unravel the functions of genes, cells, pathways and whole organisms, advancing scientists' ability to understand disease at its earliest stages. A nationwide consortium of molecular screening centers, the first of which opened this summer on the NIH campus, will share a common database of literature and experimental data through PubChem, which is freely available to scientists in the public and private sectors. This network will be unprecedented in its broad utility to basic and clinical researchers.

Increased amounts of quantitative data and powerful, efficient computer technologies are important ingredients for building models of biological circuits, the first step toward understanding molecular pathways of disease before symptoms appear. The four newly funded National Centers for Biomedical Computing will develop the core of a universal computing infrastructure that is urgently needed to speed progress in biomedical research. The centers will create innovative software programs and other tools that will permit researchers to integrate and analyze data of different types and sources, opening new pathways for understanding biological processes and human diseases.

“Biomedical research has developed extraordinarily powerful data generation methods, such as imaging and DNA sequencing. The wide availability of equally capable analysis toolkits will be crucial to capitalize on this information,” said National Institute of General Medical Sciences Director Jeremy M. Berg, Ph.D., who, together with Donald A. B. Lindberg, M.D., Director of the National Library of Medicine, co-led the working group that resulted in the formation of a network of National Centers for Biomedical Computing.

In addition, the newly funded National Technology Centers for Networks and Pathways are expected to yield extremely sensitive tools to study protein dynamics inside healthy and diseased cells. The centers will work together to develop novel technologies in the burgeoning field of proteomics — the systematic study of the proteins in a cell, tissue or organism.

For more information about the "New Pathways to Discovery" theme, go to: http://nihroadmap.nih.gov/newpathways/index.asp.

Research Teams of the Future

The rising complexity of biology and the constant emergence of new health threats call for closer collaboration between biologists, chemists, engineers, computer scientists, social and behavioral scientists, among others. Several innovative training programs have been launched within this Roadmap theme area to address this need.

One inventive program, entitled Training for a New Interdisciplinary Workforce, applies an entirely new funding mechanism toward supporting interdisciplinary work at all levels, from undergraduate students through postdoctoral researchers.

"It is critical that we lay strong foundations today to enable the formation of the diverse, interdisciplinary scientific teams that are required for the success of future research endeavors," said National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research Director Lawrence A. Tabak, D.D.S., Ph.D., who, together with Patricia A. Grady, Ph.D., R.N., F.A.A.N., Director of the National Institute of Nursing Research, and Kenneth Olden, Ph.D., Director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, co-led the Roadmap Interdisciplinary Research working group. "In order to solve the complex problems facing science and medicine, we need researchers who are comfortable crossing disciplines to find new colleagues and fresh ideas."

NIH is also funding 21 awards for Exploratory Centers for Interdisciplinary Research as part of the Research Teams of the Future theme. Dispersed around the country and covering a diverse array of medical research, the centers will focus on obesity, insect-borne diseases, diabetes, vaccines, stroke rehabilitation and other health-related issues. Designed to lower organizational barriers that impede research, these centers are expected to solve biomedical problems that have persisted despite traditional, discipline-based approaches.

Other newly funded projects within this theme support the establishment of a variety of curricula and short courses, collectively aimed at bringing together researchers from varied disciplines and helping to train a new cadre of interdisciplinary scientists in biology and in the social and behavioral sciences.

For more information about the "Research Teams of the Future" theme, go to: http://nihroadmap.nih.gov/researchteams/index.asp.

Re-Engineering the Clinical Research Enterprise

Perhaps the most pivotal, and also the most complex and difficult, aspect of the NIH Roadmap vision is its efforts to accelerate and strengthen the nation's clinical research enterprise, thereby bringing research results to clinical settings far more quickly than is currently possible. NIH is employing several strategies to pursue these goals.

Many of the most debilitating, long-term illnesses gradually erode patients' quality of life because of the fatigue, pain and mood changes that accompany these conditions. Health care providers cannot accurately measure these symptoms, yet understanding their causes and role in disease progression is critical to improving health and finding better therapies. The newly funded computer-based Patient-Reported Outcomes Measurement Information System will document and analyze patient-reported symptoms, enhancing knowledge of a wide range of chronic disorders.

Several initiatives within this theme, currently at various stages of development, are designed to grow and nurture a highly skilled clinical research workforce. For example, the recently funded Multidisciplinary Clinical Research Career Development program will train health professionals from a broad spectrum of disciplines and specialties in doing clinical research. This program will yield a new group of clinical researchers, the NIH Clinical Research Scholars, trained in conducting clinical research in multidisciplinary, collaborative settings.

"High-quality clinical research studies are the key to making sure Americans receive the benefits of the latest medical research breakthroughs," said National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases Director Stephen I. Katz, M.D., Ph.D., who, along with Stephen E. Straus, M.D., Director of the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, co-led several of the working groups within this theme. "We envision that, in time, Roadmap-led efforts will help build the necessary infrastructure for an extremely functional, integrated system in which clinical research can flourish."

NIH is also working hard to identify and assimilate best practices in clinical research to expand the scope of research activities, increase participation, and facilitate collaboration and information sharing among researchers in clinical settings. Twelve newly funded feasibility studies are examining how to better integrate existing clinical research networks spanning a broad health spectrum, including cardiovascular disease, depression, cancer, tuberculosis, HIV and acute respiratory distress syndrome. Key areas of focus include the use of informatics and technology to streamline and expand clinical research networks. NIH is also making significant strides in its efforts to promote coordination of clinical research policy across government.

Other Roadmap projects within this theme and currently underway include finding workable approaches to bringing more community health care providers into the practice of clinical research.

For more information about the "Re-Engineering the Clinical Research Enterprise" theme, go to: http://nihroadmap.nih.gov/clinicalresearchtheme/index.asp.

While the NIH Roadmap effort spent less than one-percent of the overall NIH budget this fiscal year, and remains modest in size compared to the NIH budget total throughout the projected 6-year life of the Roadmap, the process has already had a substantial impact in accomplishing its goal of uniting researchers across fields and coordinating the actions and priorities of NIH's many diverse components.

"The Roadmap was born of the need to transform how we do our science," said Dushanka V. Kleinman, D.D.S., M.Sc.D, Assistant Director for NIH Roadmap Coordination. "The process itself is stimulating “roadmap-like” discussions in other institutions and organizations," she said.

The NIH Roadmap for Medical Research is a series of far-reaching initiatives designed to transform the Nation's medical research capabilities and speed the movement of scientific discoveries from the bench to the bedside. It provides a framework of the priorities the NIH must address in order to optimize its entire research portfolio and lays out a vision for a more efficient and productive system of medical research. Additional information about the NIH Roadmap can be found at http://nihroadmap.nih.gov. For more information on the NIH, please visit the NIH Web site at http://www.nih.gov.

The National Institutes of Health (NIH), an agency of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, is the primary Federal agency for conducting and supporting basic, clinical, and translational medical research. NIH is comprised of 27 institutes and centers and investigates the causes, treatments, and cures for both common and rare diseases.


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