Biomedical Technology Resources for the Research Community

Roughly two-thirds of the biomedical technology research and development programs formerly in the National Center for Research Resources are now part of NIGMS. Housed in the Biomedical Technology Branch of our Division of Biomedical Technology, Bioinformatics, and Computational Biology, the programs meet the needs of biomedical researchers by supporting cutting-edge research and development activities through a variety of award mechanisms.

In this post, I will focus on the Biomedical Technology Research Centers (BTRC) program, which supports the development and advancement of technologies needed to address today’s compelling biomedical research questions.

The 65 national resource centers—34 are funded by NIGMS and 31 by the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering—are available to scientists doing basic, translational and clinical biomedical research, providing them access to instruments, methods, software, expertise and hands-on training. With priority given to NIH-funded investigators, scientists have the opportunity to work closely and collaboratively with experts at the centers to:

  • Adapt BTRC tools to further the specific aims of their projects.
  • Contribute to the generation of pioneering technologies that can open up new research paths.

The BTRC program has been developing and providing access to state-of-the-art resources for 50 years, and it is directly responsible for such milestone innovations as:

  • The introduction of the computer into the laboratory setting.
  • The evolution of magnetic spin resonance from an observed scientific phenomenon to an analytical research tool to a clinical imaging technique.
  • The development of technologies for harnessing synchrotron radiation for biomedical research.
  • The creation of informatics approaches that allow for secure access to and sharing of huge volumes of dissimilar data.

At the half-century mark, the BTRC program remains vital and responsive to the scientific community. Ongoing centers continue to evolve and create innovative technologies, while new centers form as needs emerge.

We encourage you to take advantage of these valuable research resources. For more information about the NIGMS-funded BTRCs or other biomedical technology programs, please feel free to call 301-435-0755 or e-mail one of the following program directors:

Introducing the Institutional Development Award (IDeA) Program

As Judith Greenberg reported earlier this year, NIH has moved the Institutional Development Award (IDeA) program to NIGMS from the now-dissolved National Center for Research Resources. For those who may not be familiar with this program, here’s an overview.

Established by Congressional mandate in 1993, the IDeA program’s goal is to broaden the geographic distribution of NIH funding. It supports faculty development and institutional research infrastructure enhancement in states that have historically received low levels of support from NIH. In addition to enhancing the competitiveness of investigators and the research capacities of institutions in these 23 states plus Puerto Rico, the program serves their unique populations, such as rural and medically underserved communities.

The IDeA program has two main components:

The IDeA program currently supports 87 COBREs and 24 INBREs.

An example of how the IDeA program has built competitive research capacity is the Rhode Island INBRE Exit icon. Over the past 10 years of support, Rhode Island IDeA investigators have received 21 R- and K-series awards from NIH and 28 awards from NSF and other funding agencies.

Similarly, investigators at the Center for Evolutionary and Theoretical Immunology Exit icon, a COBRE based at the University of New Mexico that has been supported for 8 years, submitted 20 grant applications to federal and non-federal agencies in the past year, 10 of which were funded.

Next Deadline for Collaborative Science Supplement Requests

The next application deadline for the Administrative Supplements for Collaborative Science (SCS) program is May 15, 2012. Applications may be submitted on paper, as described in the announcement, or through the electronic submission pilot for administrative supplement requests.

The SCS program provides supplements to support new collaborations that will advance the aims of the parent R01 or R37 grant, which must be actively funded through at least November 30, 2013. The most compelling supplement requests propose to take advantage of new scientific opportunities and involve collaborators from other disciplines.

SCS awards are very competitive, so you should talk to your program director to assess whether your ideas fit this program before writing an application.

Emergence of Quantitative and Systems Pharmacology: A White Paper

Our interest in quantitative and systems pharmacology (QSP) began in 2007 as a question about why we were seeing so little integration between two fields we fund: systems biology and pharmacology. We recognized that connecting them could improve our understanding of drug action and speed drug discovery and development while also increasing our scientific understanding of biology.

To examine the potential of quantitative, systems approaches to pharmacology research, we sponsored two workshops in this area, one in 2008 and the other in 2010. After the second meeting, a committee of external scientists who were also workshop participants began drafting a white paper to assess the state of the science and enumerate the opportunities, needs and challenges for QSP as an emerging discipline.

The committee recently issued the white paper.

The paper makes the case that this post-genomic era is the right time to develop and employ quantitative, systems approaches to understand drug action more predictively, and that the need and excitement for doing so is building. Already we are starting to see evidence of this field emerging—the University of California, San Francisco, has started a Center for Quantitative Pharmacology Exit icon, and Harvard Medical School just announced an Initiative in Systems Pharmacology Exit icon. Also, the American Association of Pharmaceutical Sciences annual meeting Exit icon this month will include a session called, “Achieving the Quantitative and Systems Pharmacology Vision.”

The overall recommendation of the workshop committee is for pharmacology to move beyond characterizing drug/target interactions to a holistic quantitative understanding of drug action across many levels—from drug-receptor interactions to drug response in humans. As stated in the paper, this will require the participation of scientists from academia and industry who work in diverse areas, including traditional pharmacology, clinical pharmacology, pharmacodynamics/pharmacokinetic modeling, systems biology, chemistry, bioinformatics, multiscale modeling and computer science. Training new and established investigators also will be a critical element.

We encourage you to read the paper and let us know what you think about its recommendations for research and training in QSP.

Collaborative Science Supplement Requests Due in January

Do unexpected results from your NIGMS-funded R01 or R37 project have you thinking about your research in a different way, or is there a new approach that will greatly advance the aims of your studies? Will you need a collaborator with appropriate expertise to proceed?

If you answered “yes” to these questions, you might consider applying for an administrative supplement for collaborative science (SCS). Now in its 4th year, the SCS program enables new collaborations that were not initially planned and therefore are not supported by the parent grant. Grants must be actively funded through at least July 31, 2013, to be eligible for the next submission deadline of January 15, 2012.

To be sure that your proposal is appropriate for this program, please read the NIH Guide notice, review the program description (no longer available) and discuss your plans with your NIGMS program director. For general questions about the program, e-mail me or Marion Zatz.

Apply for Ecology and Evolution of Infectious Diseases Program

The NIGMS program supporting research on the evolution of infectious diseases has merged with the ecology of infectious disease program that has been supported primarily by the National Science Foundation and NIH’s Fogarty International Center to create a new funding opportunity announcement.

Ecology and Evolution of Infectious Diseases (EEID) Exit icon, also sponsored by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, recognizes that infectious disease systems offer a perfect model for studying how context (i.e., ecology) and change (i.e., evolution) interact as organisms adapt to each other. The intersection of ecology and evolution also is relevant to many real-world problems, such as finding new vaccines or understanding how pathogens emerge.

EEID research will advance broad, conceptual knowledge that reaches beyond specific systems and that may be useful for understanding public, agricultural or ecosystem health; natural resource use and wildlife management; and/or economic development.

NIGMS’ particular interest is in the integration of ecological and evolutionary dynamics to address, for example:

  • The role of social influences on the susceptibility of individuals or populations,
  • Interactions between pathogenic and nonpathogenic organisms and their mutual hosts,
  • The emergence of pathogens from nonpathogenic populations,
  • Host switching, and
  • The evolution and maintenance of drug resistance.

Applications should combine field and laboratory research with mathematical, statistical and computational modeling. We encourage proposals from collaborative teams with expertise from diverse disciplines. Applications are due by December 7 and will be submitted to and reviewed by NSF. NIGMS will consider funding those that score well and are within the Institute’s mission areas.

More on Assessing the Glue Grant Program

NIGMS is committed to thoughtful analysis before it initiates new programs and to careful, transparent assessment of ongoing programs at appropriate stages to help determine future directions. In this spirit, we have been assessing our large-scale programs, starting with the Protein Structure Initiative and more recently, the glue grant program.

For the glue grants (which are formally known as Large-Scale Collaborative Project Awards), we engaged in both a process evaluation and an outcomes assessment. These assessments, conducted by independent, well-qualified groups, articulated the strengths and accomplishments, as well as the weaknesses and challenges, of the glue grant program. The main conclusion of the outcomes assessment was that NIGMS should discontinue the current program and in its place create “a suite of modified program(s) to support innovative, interdisciplinary, large scale research” with the recommendation “that awards should be considerably smaller, but larger in number.”

The glue grant program was developed beginning in 1998 in anticipation of substantial increases in the NIH budget. At that time, members of the scientific community were expressing concern about how to support a trend toward interdisciplinary and collaborative science. This was discussed extensively by our Advisory Council. Here’s an excerpt from the minutes of a January 1999 meeting:

“Council discussion centered on why current mechanisms do not satisfy the need; the fact that these will be experiments in the organization of integrative science; the usefulness of consortia in collecting reference data and developing new technology that are difficult to justify on individual projects; the need to include international collaborations; and the need for rapid and open data sharing. Council voted concurrence with NIGMS plans to further develop and issue these initiatives.”

This summary captures many of the key challenges that emerged over the next 12 years in the glue grant program. I’d like to give my perspective on three key points.

First, these grants were always intended to be experiments in the organization of integrative science. One of the most striking features of the glue grants is how different they are from one another based on the scientific challenge being addressed, the nature of the scientific community in which each glue grant is embedded and the approach of the principal investigator and other members of the leadership team. The process evaluation expressed major concern about such differences between the glue grants, but in fact this diversity reflects a core principle of NIGMS: a deep appreciation for the role of the scientific community in defining scientific problems and identifying approaches for addressing them.

Second, as highlighted in both reports, the need for rapid and open data sharing remains a great challenge. All of the glue grants have included substantial investments in information technology and have developed open policies toward data release. However, making data available and successfully sharing data in forms that the scientific community will embrace are not equivalent. And of course, effective data and knowledge sharing is a challenge throughout the scientific community, not just in the glue grants.

Third, the timing for these assessments is challenging. On one hand, it is desirable to perform the assessments as early as possible after the initiation of a new program to inform program management and to indicate the need for potential adjustments.  On the other hand, the impact of scientific advances takes time to unfold and this can be particularly true for ambitious, larger-scale programs. It may be interesting to look at the impact of these programs again in the future to gauge their impact over time.

During my time at NIGMS, I have been impressed by the considerable efforts of the Institute staff involved with the glue grants. They have approached the stewardship of this novel program with a critical eye, working to find oversight mechanisms that would facilitate the impact of the grants on the relevant, broad components of the scientific community. As the current program ends, we will continue to think creatively about how best to support collaborative research, bearing in mind the glue grant assessment panel’s recommendation that we explore appropriate mechanisms to support large-scale, collaborative approaches.

Moving Cell Migration Forward: Meeting Highlights Progress

Frontiers in Cell Migration and Mechanotransduction meeting posterLast week, NIGMS hosted the Frontiers in Cell Migration and Mechanotransduction meeting Exit icon. It brought together an impressive group of scientists working at many levels, from molecules to cells, tissues and organs.

The overall sense from the meeting is that a wide variety of tools, approaches and even fields have converged on this topic of how and why cells move and that this convergence has become a source of collaboration between communities that historically have not interacted.

Several important themes emerged, including:

  • Events, such as cell signaling, are highly localized and closely coordinated. In a fascinating talk, Klaus Hahn (University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill) presented new experimental data using a photoactivable and completely reversible probe that he developed for RhoG. Important in wound healing, RhoG turns on immediately at the leading edge when the cell moves and seems to regulate the direction of cell migration and whether a cell can turn.
  • It’s all about forces—once invisible to most techniques that biologists have used, forces are now being deduced and measured internally. Chris Chen (University of Pennsylvania) showed us a stem cell’s response to the dish surface generates cellular forces and that these forces affect whether the cell rounds up or spreads. Chen’s data suggests that cell spreading is essential for triggering distinct differentiation pathways—and that whether a stem cell becomes a brain or a bone cell is driven by this contractility.
  • Cells communicate and influence each other. In a talk that linked basic biology to clinical research, Anna Huttenlocher (University of Wisconsin-Madison) showed that leukocyte migration can be an immune response to cell wounding. By using photo-caged biosensors developed by Klaus Hahn, she found that neutrophil cells are more active and recruited more quickly after subsequent wounding events. They also recruit other cells to the wound sites.

The talks, as well as the poster session, pointed to additional conclusions: Cell migration is a collective behavior, and feedback mechanisms control many cell migration events.

This was the third and final meeting organized by the NIGMS-funded Cell Migration Consortium (CMC), whose project will sunset in August 2011. The consortium developed a cell migration gateway Exit icon that will continue to exist as a resource for updates in the field; you can subscribe at Exit icon.

Jim Deatherage contributed to this post.

NIGMS Glue Grant Assessment Report

Last November, I announced that NIGMS was conducting an assessment of its Large-Scale Collaborative Project Awards (glue grant) program and solicited your input.

We have now posted the report of this assessment, which is based on an analysis of input from six different sources, including comments we received from the scientific community.

The assessment’s conclusion is that the glue grant program has had mixed results. All of the projects accomplished some of their goals, and some of the projects had a substantial impact in their fields. However, the assessment also found that the program as a whole had not achieved outcomes commensurate with the scope of the awards and the overall investment in them.

The panel members felt that “the successes and challenges of the Glue Grant Awards Program provide a useful guide for the development of future programs.” While they recommended discontinuing the program as it currently exists, they did not recommend abandoning all support for collaborative research, even in the face of tighter budgets. Rather, they suggested a number of ways to improve support for larger-scale projects and indicated that these projects cannot be accomplished with R01 grant support alone.

Last week, I presented the outcomes of the assessment to our Advisory Council, which embraced the recommendations of the assessment panel and encouraged NIGMS to develop alternative mechanisms to support the varied accomplishments that were supported through the glue grant program. We will take the report and Council’s advice into consideration as we develop future plans for funding collaborative research.

Collaborative Science Supplement Requests – Next Deadline Is in May

Have an idea for a great collaboration that will advance your NIGMS-funded research project? If your current award has active funding through at least November 30, 2012, you may be eligible to jump-start your idea with an administrative supplement for collaborative science. The next submission deadline is May 15, 2011.

To ensure that your project is appropriate for this program, please review the funding opportunity announcement. You should also discuss the project idea with your NIGMS program director before preparing an application. For general questions about the program, contact me or Marion Zatz.