One of the biggest stories making its way around the life science community this week is the National Institute of Health’s (NIH) creation of the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences. The story first appeared in the New York Times (NYT) on January 22nd and has generated confusion and concern among scientists worried about their future funding. In this post, I will attempt to summarize the NYT article and the reactions it has received from both the NIH and the general public.
The NIH is part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, is made up of 27 Institutes and Centers and funds over $31.2 billion annually in medical research. Suffice to say the NIH funds the majority of America’s medical R&D programs and therefore any changes to the NIH funding structure is bound to garner concern among American scientists.
According to the NYT article, the NIH will be creating a new center called the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences (NCATS). The purpose of NCATS will be to help advance drug and biomedical research in an academic environment until it reaches a mature stage where pharma and biotech companies are prepared to purchase the technology and turn it into a commercial therapeutic. The NYT mentions that
“under the plan, more than $700 million in research projects already under way at various institutes and centers would be brought together at the new center”
The article also contains a statement that has been responsible for much of this week’s controversy.
“Dr. (Francis) Collins (director of the NIH) has hinted that he is willing to cannibalize other parts of the health institutes to bring more resources to the new center.”
In practical terms, this means that the NIH would have to get rid of one of the existing centers in order for the plan to move forward in a timely fashion. As a result, the NIH has decided to close the National Center for Research Resources (NCRR) which funds 30,000 scientists to the tune of $1.25 billion annually.
The creation of NCATS has generated 55 pages of comments/complaints which can be viewed on the NCATS complaint blog. A large number of comments have been posted by NCRR investigators worried that the collapse of the NCRR will lead to the discontinuation of their project’s funding. Many are concerned that their funding will dry up altogether while others are worried about the dilution affect that breaking up NCRR and spreading its programs throughout the remaining institutes will have on the quality of their research. For example, Dr. Richard Winn writes:
“I have been alerted to the potential fate of the NCRR Division of Comparative Medicine as part of the NCATS. As a researcher focused on using primarily rodent and aquatic animal models, the Division of Comparative Medicine has provided for me the solitary group that consistently recognized and promoted the use of diverse animal models in advancing biomedical research. Recent advances in nearly all of the “omics” (e.g. genomics, proteomics, metabolomics, etc.)have reinforced and proven the value of comparative approaches. However, efforts to “simplify” programs under the guise of administrative expediency will threaten the necessary focus of such approaches. Comparative Medicine needs to be maintained as a discrete entity under a single administrative leadership and management. Please consider carefully how such re-organization can ultimately disrupt a vibrant and productive research community.”
All this has forced Dr. Collins et al. to release a statement entitled Separating fact & fiction: News about the proposed National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences which can be viewed here.His response consists of five bullet points with the two key messages identified below:
- For the most part, the budget and staff for each relocated program will remain with that program
- There are no plans to “cannibalize” the budgets or programs of other NIH Institutes and Centers to form NCATS
So, if you are currently funded by the NCRR, you likely have little cause for concern.
Furthermore, as expressed by Mathew Herper at Forbes, the creation of an institute that focuses on advancing drug development “is a smart approach for academic researchers to take if they want to develop drugs” and will help in the advancement and commercialization of treatments in areas that would have otherwise not have been developed by large drug companies (such as rare diseases).