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NIH Chief Stresses Economic Impact of Federal Biomedical Funding

Xconomy San Diego — 

Cancer and certain types of mental illness are diseases that appear ripe for research breakthroughs, according to Francis Collins, who just marked his sixth month as director of the National Institutes of Health.

“I’m always loath to say what’s on the brink of some big breakthrough,” says Collins, who met with local reporters while attending the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science—which is in San Diego for the first time since the AAAS was founded in 1848. Yet Collins, who previously led the Human Genome Project, says advances in genomics and the power of genetic sequencing technologies are opening the possibility of new therapies in cancer, as well as for schizophrenia, autism, and bipolar disorders—diseases with strong genetic components.

“I would hope in another five years that we would have the capability to have the genome of your tumor completely analyzed—and then go through the list of drugs that are available” to determine which anti-tumor drug would be most effective. Collins says using genomics to assess how genetic variations affect each patient’s individual response to different drugs is an example of the growing field of pharmacogenomics, and represents another aspect of the revolution that’s underway.

Collins says cancer is a disease of the genome, and federal funding for biomedical research is not only advancing on a cure but also helping to sustain the nation’s economic recovery. Of $10 billion in stimulus funding to be spent over two years on biomedical research, Collins says about $4.5 billion has been allocated throughout the country so far.

Some additional details, courtesy of the NIH director:

—Of the $4.5 billion in current economic recovery and stimulus funding, the NIH directed $126 million to researchers in San Diego County. Including the stimulus funding, the NIH provided about $920 million in funding for biomedical research in San Diego County during the current fiscal year. NIH grants are supporting 1,180 scientists at 92 organizations throughout the county. “San Diego is famous for being on the high end of innovation, both at the academic centers and at the research institutes,” Collins says.

—The NIH also has created a pilot that uses federal stimulus funding to help support biomedical research breakthroughs across the funding gap between lab bench and commercialization, also known as the “valley of death,” where many innovations die. The program, called Biomedical Research, Development, and Growth to Spur the Acceleration of New Technologies—or BRDG-SPAN—helps provide critical funding needed to carry out later stage research activities and to pursue the next appropriate milestone(s) necessary to move a product/technology along a promising commercialization pathway.

—Federal funding for biomedical research is something that President Obama strongly supports. The president has proposed increasing the current NIH budget of nearly $31 billion by another $1 billion for fiscal 2011, Collins says, “even at a time of difficult economic stress because of the president’s absolute confidence that an investment in science and technology is critical to the future of our nation.”

—Collins says the NIH will announce seven new funding programs this week that are intended to create “highly innovative and cross-disciplinary” centers. “Even though my budget is $31 billion, I could easily spend twice as much without wasting money,” Collins says. “The average person who sends a grant request to NIH has about one chance in five of getting funded.”