NIH reports progress in research initiative

Program supports cutting-edge studies


WASHINGTON -- Dr. Elias A. Zerhouni, director of the National Institutes of Health, reported progress yesterday in an effort to encourage cutting-edge research that crosses disciplines and is tested more quickly to determine whether it provides an effective cure or treatment.

"Three years ago it was an experiment. Today it is part of the culture. Tomorrow it will be institutionalized," Zerhouni said after a news conference championing the initiative, called the NIH Roadmap, which he started after becoming director in 2002.

The NIH is the government's main medical research arm and distributes federal funding. The Johns Hopkins University receives more agency grants than any other institution, a total of $600 million.

Dr. Daniel Ford, vice dean for clinical investigation at the Hopkins medical school, said more of the school's researchers were collaborating across disciplines, partly because of the NIH push.

"It's an alignment of the reality of the problems we're facing, what the NIH agenda is, and I think part of it, too, is trying to improve the efficiency" of research projects in an era of limited resources, Ford said.

Ford said his work is starting to reflect the push for quicker application of basic research. He applied for a federal grant to study patient records from doctors in the Baltimore area.

Supporters say such records could provide a trove of valuable data, in some cases beyond what formal trials on drugs and treatments have traditionally offered. The data is also helpful, supporters say, because it's getting more difficult to find patients willing to participate in clinical trials.

As part of his initiative, Zerhouni has been encouraging academic researchers to work with local doctors to speed the study of promising treatments.

At the news conference, Zerhouni singled out the collections of chemical compounds called "small molecules" that NIH is establishing across the country for scientists to test while researching the causes of and treatments for diseases.

He also cited plans to create four research centers across the country where teams of doctors, engineers and scientists from various disciplines can develop "nanotechnologies" for curing diseases and repairing damaged tissues on a molecular scale.

Zerhouni, who left Hopkins to lead the NIH, said that almost 2 percent of the agency's $28 billion budget is set aside to promote potentially significant but risky science.

This year, it gave 13 scientists $500,000 "Pioneer Awards" to research bold ideas that could easily fail but would produce breakthroughs if successful.

"This sort of program encourages people who are engaged and really want to do something, even if there is a high risk, to give it a try," said Dr. Nathan D. Wolfe Sr. of Johns Hopkins, who is working with hunters in central Africa to study how viruses spread from animals to humans and cause diseases.

Dr. Rob Phillips, a professor of engineering and applied science at the California Institute of Technology, won one of the awards last year to use mathematics and physics to explore the workings of cells and their interactions with viruses.

"That spirit of adventurousness is lacking oftentimes in the conventional funding climate," he said.

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