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IS SPECIAL ABOUT THE INTRAMURAL
. . . SPECIAL FEATURES OF THE IRP . . . ENABLE OUR INTRAMURAL SCIENTISTS TO AVOID NONINNOVATIVE SCIENCE AND PURSUE RISKIER PATHS THAT MAY OPEN ONTO MAJOR ADVANCES IN OUR BASIC KNOWLEDGE AND CLINICAL ABILITIES
It is useful from time to time to re-evaluate the structure and function of the NIH intramural research programand the arrival of a new NIH director who asks for an overview of IRP contributions gives us the opportunity to do just that.
In a recent visit with the Scientific Directors, Dr. Zerhouni asked for examples of the IRPs past and continuing contributions to the overall NIH research effort. He was particularly interested in those that would be difficult or impossible to pursue using other funding mechanisms.
The resulting list was impressive and underscores the uniqueness of the research environment provided by NIH, the special features of the IRP that enable our intramural scientists to avoid noninnovative science and pursue riskier paths that may open onto major advances in our basic knowledge and clinical abilities.
Salient IRP characteristics include relatively long-term stable funding, which allows scientists to undertake research with a potentially high payoff but a long germination period; a critical mass of researchers who can interact collaboratively to assemble teams to attack complex problems; the ability to purchase major capital equipment and create facilities; short start-up time to address urgent problems in public health and to develop newly emerging scientific fields; and the premier clinical research facility in the country for conducting innovative research that takes basic science from bench to bedside.
Here are some examples of the research fostered by these unique features.
Long-term investment: Nobel prizewinning contributions in establishing the genetic code, determining how neurons communicate, and discovering the basis for transfer of information into cells by the action of hormones, among others.
Teamwork: the development of vaccines against hepatitis, childhood bacterial infections, and papillomaviruses associated with cervical cancer, as well as other cancer vaccines; current work at the Vaccine Research Center and NIAID to develop a vaccine against HIV-AIDS and Ebola; and assembly of a critical mass of bioinformatics expertise at the National Center for Biotechnology Information, NLM, to archive and analyze DNA sequence information.
Resources: Powerful instruments including multi-Tesla magnets and high-resolution microscopes to probe subcellular structures; MRI equipment to visualize the functioning of the brain and heart; and an animal imaging facility that is second-to-none in developing new technologies to yield high-resolution images of normal and pathological tissue in animal model systems.
Short start-up: Response to HIV-AIDS epidemic and biodefense needs; one of the first centers to adapt microarray technology for diagnosis of cancer, to use positional cloning technology to isolate novel disease genes, and to develop vectors that have facilitated the recombinant DNA revolution.
Clinical research: Lithium to treat manic-depressive illness; fluoride to prevent tooth decay; first artificial heart valve; multiple chemotherapeutic agents to cure cancer; detection of hepatitis viruses to make the blood supply safe; the first effective treatment of HIV-AIDS; development of new approaches to organ and tissue transplantation, including transplantation of pancreatic islet cells; the study of families with rare genetic diseases to facilitate cloning of many different genes associated with human inherited diseases such as Parkinsons disease and hereditary deafness syndromes; and other population-based studies to determine the role of environmental and genetic causes of human disease and to document biological changes associated with normal development, aging, and drug and alcohol abuse.
To capitalize on the special features of the intramural program, especially the ability to bring state-of-the-art resources and teams of scientists to bear on difficult scientific problems over a long period of time, we have begun to design centers that allow even closer interaction of scientists with similar interests. The neuroscience center, emerging now in the southwest corner of the Bethesda campus, epitomizes this approach.
NIH intramural scientists have used the extraordinary opportunities inherent in the NIH way of doing research to great advantage. I encourage young scientists in training here to shy away from "me, too" science and avail themselves of the unique climate here for more creative work.
I am certain the readers of this essay can think of other unique features of the intramural program that have led to research with a major impact on modern biomedical research. As always, I welcome your thoughts and examples.
Deputy Director for Intramural Research
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