Revolutionizing Science

Research Tools

NIH leads the charge on developing new research tools that have broad applications, pushing the boundaries on multiple research fronts.

Small Molecule Screening

Thanks to NIH, publicly funded researchers now have access to resources and tools with the capacity to screen large numbers of small molecules, helping them to more efficiently study genes and discover treatments for human diseases. Researchers used these resources to develop FDA-approved treatments for ulcerative colitis and relapsing forms of multiple sclerosis.

Image credit: National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences, NIH

  • This advancement in small molecule research makes it easier for scientists to use and understand molecular compounds in basic research and drug development.
  • The NIH Common Fund Molecular Libraries and Imaging Program also launched PubChem, an open chemistry database that contains information on chemical structures, properties, and biological activities of over 100 million compounds, including small molecules. 
  • NIH also developed tools and resources to help scientists conduct preclinical research, with a focus on small molecule screening.

Single Cell Analysis

NIH fostered a technological revolution in single cell analysis research, leading to the development of cutting-edge tools, methods, platforms, and cell atlases to identify and characterize features of single cells within a variety of human tissues. These technologies are available to the entire research community to foster additional breakthroughs in research.

Image credit: NIH

  • The human body contains approximately 37 trillion cells, carefully organized in tissues to carry out the daily processes that keep the body alive and healthy. Analysis of single cells poses many technological challenges.
  • Between 2012 and 2017, the NIH Common Fund Single Cell Analysis Program found a three-fold increase in the number of single cell analysis projects funded by NIH and an approximate doubling of relevant publications. 
  • Understanding cells at the individual level may lead to new understandings of development, health, aging, and disease.


NIH funded the development and dissemination of cryo-electron microscopy (cryo-EM), a tool that enables high-resolution images of proteins and other biological structures. Cryo-EM has helped researchers identify potential new therapeutic targets for vaccines and drugs.

Image credit: Huilin Li, Brookhaven National Laboratory, and Bruce Stillman, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory

  • An NIH-funded researcher was awarded the 2017 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for their work characterizing proteins using cryo-EM. 
  • Since 2018, the NIH-supported National Centers for Cryo-EM enabled researchers to determine the structure of more than 300 proteins, including the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein, and trained more than 1,000 investigators in this cutting-edge technique.

Cell Culture Technology

NIH scientists created Matrigel, a specialized gel that promotes cell growth on a 3-D surface that mimics the environment within the body. Today, Matrigel is widely used in labs around the world to study cells that were previously impossible to grow and to investigate complex cell activities in a more relevant environment.

Image credit: David Sone

  • Prior to this invention, scientists grew cells in a flat layer in plastic culture dishes, which was not sufficient to grow specialized cells, like stem cells.
  • Using Matrigel, researchers discovered new insights into nerve growth, the formation of blood vessels, and stem and cancer cell biology. It is also being used to screen cancer drugs and to support development of artificial tissues that can mimic organ function. 
  • More than 13,000 scientific papers have cited the use of Matrigel in their studies.

Cancer Genome Atlas

The Cancer Genome Atlas (TCGA) is a landmark NIH cancer genomics program that transformed our understanding of cancer by analyzing tumors from 11,000 patients with 33 different cancer types. Findings from TCGA identified new ways to prevent, diagnose, and treat cancers, such as gliomas and stomach cancer.

Image credit: Darryl Leja, National Human Genome Research Institute, NIH

  • TCGA showed that different cancers can share molecular traits regardless of the organ or tissue they are found in. This enabled the emergence of precision medicine in oncology—cancer treatment based on molecular traits rather than the tissue in the body where the cancer started.
  • TCGA generated over 2.5 petabytes (1 petabyte = 500 billion pages of standard printed text!) of data on genes, proteins, and their modifications in cancer by bringing together 20 collaborating institutions across the U.S. and Canada.

Recombinant DNA

Because of NIH-funded research on recombinant DNA technology, researchers developed techniques that can enable the production of large quantities of important peptides—the building blocks of proteins—which can be used to produce certain medicines.

Image credit: National Human Genome Research Institute, NIH

  • Scientists use specialized molecules to snip out a specific gene from a long strand of DNA, creating recombinant DNA by inserting it into bacterial or yeast cells. These cells reproduce quickly and, following the gene’s instructions, make large amounts of the desired peptide.
  • These techniques enabled the production of synthetic insulin to treat diabetes.
  • Medicines produced using these techniques have been used for more than 30 years.
  • In 1980, an NIH-funded researcher received a Nobel Prize for research on recombinant DNA.

Imaging Technology

Significant innovation in clinical imaging technology is a result of NIH-funded research. Imaging technologies now have higher resolution and greater sensitivity, with new categories of imaging, like digital 3D reconstructions, now being commonly used.

Image credit: Clinical Center, NIH

  • A new type of positron emission tomography (PET) that looks for prostate cancer specific proteins has been found to be 27% more accurate than standard methods for detecting prostate cancers.
  • NIH-supported improvements in PET technologies resulted in a more sensitive technology that can capture scans in under a minute and reduce the dose of dye given to patients.
  • NIH-funded research led to the development of nuclear magnetic resonance imaging, which won a Nobel Prize, and is the same technique used in MRIs in clinical settings.


Small Molecule Screening

  1. Molecular Libraries and Imaging:
  2. Preclinical Research Toolbox:
  3. PubChem:
  4. Molecular Libraries and Imaging Program Highlights:
  5. Article: Ozanimod accepted for priority review by FDA for the treatment of ulcerative colitis:
  6. Article: U.S. Food and Drug Administration Approves Bristol Myers Squibb’s Zeposia® (ozanimod), an Oral Treatment for Adults with Moderately to Severely Active Ulcerative Colitis:

Single Cell Analysis

  1. NIH Single Cell Analysis Program:
  2. Roy AL, et al. Sci Adv. 2018;4(8):eaat8573. PMID: 30083611.
  3. The Human BioMolecular Atlas Program:
  4. HuBMAP Data Portal:
  5. Cellular Senescence Network:
  6. LungMAP:
  7. GenitoUrinary Development Molecular Anatomy Project:


  1. Transformative High-Resolution Cryoelectron Microscopy Program:
  2. Cryo-Electron Microscopy Program Centers:
  3. Zhang K, et al. bioRxiv [Preprint]. 2020:2020.08.11.245696. Update in: QRB Discov. 2020;1:e11. PMID: 32817943
  4. NIH Nobel Laureates:
  5. Cressey D, et al. Nature. 2017;550(7675):167. PMID: 29022937.

Cell Culture Technology

  1. Simian M, et al. J Cell Biol. 2017;216(1):31-40. PMID: 28031422.
  2. Article: An Interview with Hynda Kleinman:
  3. Kleinman HK, et al. Semin Cancer Biol. 2005;15(5):378-86. PMID: 15975825.
  4. Article: Hair today, gone tomorrow: NIDCR'S Hynda Kleinman takes off for new horizons:

Cancer Genome Atlas

  1. The Cancer Genome Atlas Program:

Recombinant DNA

  1. NIGMS-Supported Nobelists:
  2. Article: Celebrating the discovery and development of insulin:
  3. National Institute of General Medical Sciences. The New Genetics. 2010.

Imaging Technology

  1. Article: Commemorating the 50th Anniversary of the National Cancer Act (NCA50): Clinical Imaging — Then and Now:
  2. EXPLORER Total Body PET Scanner:
  3. Badawi RD, et al. J Nucl Med. 2019;60(3):299-303. PMID: 30733314.
  4. Article: PSMA PET-CT Accurately Detects Prostate Cancer Spread, Trial Shows:
  5. NIGMS-Supported Nobelists:
  6. Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI):

This page last reviewed on March 1, 2023