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NIH looks to fund life sciences innovators

on September 22, 2011 Source: Kauffman Foundation

All the talk in Washington right now is focused on putting Americans back to work.

We don’t take political positions here – both political parties have plenty of reason to hang their heads in shame over the $14.4 trillion U.S. debt – but at least the National Institutes of Health gets it.

The NIH is looking to help jumpstart the biosciences side of the economy with a new funding program that awards almost $144 million to healthcare innovators who can propel the industry forward.

According to the NIH, there are three types of grants: The NIH Director’s Pioneer grant ($10.4 million in funding,) the New Innovator grant ($117.5 million in funding) and the Transformative Research Projects Awards ($15.9 million in funding.)

All three categories operate under the umbrella of the NIH’s Common Fund, which was passed into law by Congress back in 2006. The fund is geared toward funding innovators and risk takers in the life sciences field, and has been fairly narrow in its funding scope – until now, the NIH says.

"The NIH Director's Award programs reinvigorate the biomedical work force by providing unique opportunities to conduct research that is neither incremental nor conventional," notes James M. Anderson, M.D., Ph.D., director of the NIH Common Fund's High-Risk Research program. "The awards are intended to catalyze giant leaps forward for any area of biomedical research, allowing investigators to go in entirely new directions."

A quick review of the up-to-date 2011 funding list reveals 79 recipients, including 13 Pioneer awards, 49 New Innovator awards and 19 Transformative Research Projects.

A good number of those recipients come from academia, including five Stanford University faculty members. One good example of how the recipients are rewarded comes from David Schneider, PhD, associate professor of microbiology and immunology, and an NIH Pioneer Award winner.

Schneider received $2.5 million from the NIH to examine the field of resilience, defined as the ability of an organism to be perturbed by, for example, infection, and then return to its original state.

“We are planning to concentrate on how a host recovers from an infection instead of the usual approach, which is to ask how sick they will get,” Schneider explains, adding that he sees recovery from infection as an active process that is not simply the opposite of the route that leads from health to sickness.

“The fundamental question we’re asking is: Does the way we get better differ from the way we get sick?” he said. He says learning the answer will focus on research testing to examine if mechanisms known to be involved in declining health are also involved in recovery; identifying novel mechanisms involved in recovery; and developing a mathematical model that can predict resilience.

It’s an interesting proposition. The NIH is looking for ways to get innovators like Schneider the funding they need to propel their ideas forward, hopefully someday to the commercial marketplace.

At millions of dollars a pop, the awards are certainly a step in the right direction.

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