Taking science to next stage

NIH to pay $500 million yearly to turn research into practical remedies


WASHINGTON -- The National Institutes of Health unveiled yesterday a $500-million-a- year program to turn promising laboratory discoveries in genetics and other fields into drugs and treatments.

The new program announced by NIH Director Elias A. Zerhouni is intended to address a lack of funding that many researchers say has left them unable to take recent scientific advances to the next stage and translate them into practical uses for patients.

Yesterday, researchers applauded the program, which will pay select universities and private institutions to establish departments dedicated to such follow-up work.

"What this is going to do is facilitate the knowledge transfer from the lab to clinical research. It's going to make clinical research easier to do," said Michael J. Klag, dean of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

Although pharmaceutical and medical companies support much clinical research, they tend to pursue new drugs and devices with the most profit potential, leaving many possible treatments to universities and research institutions to develop.

For years, universities performed most of the country's applied science, relying on profits from treating patients at their hospitals to pay for it. But as health insurance companies have cut payments, the money for research has dwindled.

So has the number of young doctors and scientists entering the field. The lack of funding and the time-consuming nature of the research make it harder for them to write the papers needed to ascend the tenure track.

The NIH initiative seeks to unclog the bottleneck by giving universities and researchers a financial incentive to do the work, NIH officials said.

It will fund university departments, centers or institutes where researchers can study effective therapies and learn the increasingly complex skills behind this type of clinical work. The program also will support efforts to ease the regulatory approvals needed to conduct tests on patients, and it will pay for developing novel ways to perform the research.

"It's one of the biggest changes to happen in clinical research in many, many years," said Mendel Tuchman, vice chairman for research at the Children's Research Institute, in Washington, D.C.

There are plenty of scientific advances awaiting translation into effective treatments, researchers say. Just in the past few years, study of molecular abnormalities that cause cancers has produced several potential new therapies.

At the University of Maryland, a researcher believes that drugs that have proven effective at treating breast cancer might be helpful for treating prostate cancer as well, said Kevin J. Cullen, who directs its cancer research center.

Faster answers

"But we can't test them as fast as these new drugs are being developed. We don't have enough clinical scientists," Cullen said. He expressed hope that the NIH program would make it possible to "answer the questions years faster than we do now."

"This may not completely solve the problem, but if it provides a pool of younger scientists to do this kind of work, then that will have been an enormous accomplishment," Cullen said.

The program is the latest in Zerhouni's efforts to reorganize NIH priorities as research suggests common sources for the underpinnings for various diseases and a need to break down the disciplinary walls that have existed between specialists who study them.

It makes more sense, Zerhouni says, for scientists who study different diseases and organs to work together with mathematicians, engineers and others who can help with clinical research.

With a $28 billion budget, the agency is the federal government's main source of funds for medical research. It now pays for several separate clinical programs, including 78 research centers and various training programs.

Zerhouni described the new initiative as an effort to consolidate the existing programs - and their funding - while quickening the application of basic research.

"It is designed to spur the transformation of the clinical research enterprise," he said.

Next year, NIH expects to award $30 million for several new clinical research centers, said Barbara M. Alving, the agency's acting director of the National Center for Research Resources. It plans to grant an additional $11.5 million to underwrite 50 applications to open centers. By 2012, it plans to award $500 million to 60 centers.

Among those most anxious about the announcement were administrators of existing NIH-funded clinical research programs, who fear they could lose their current funding. They will have to apply for the new awards.

Tuchman, who operates one of the current programs, said he would develop a partnership between his institute and affiliate George Washington University so young doctors could earn degrees in clinical research.

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