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Louis Jacobson
By Louis Jacobson January 10, 2013

New center at NIH is taking up the challenge

During the 2008 presidential election, Barack Obama promised to "build on America's unparalleled talent to create new drugs, vaccines, and diagnostic tests and to manufacture these vital products much more quickly and efficiently than is now possible."

The biggest step in this direction was the creation in 2011 of the National Institutes of Health's National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences. The center's mission is to "speed the delivery of new drugs, diagnostics and medical devices to patients" by developing "innovations to reduce, remove or bypass costly and time-consuming bottlenecks" in the biomedical-research pipeline. The center is partly designed to facilitate collaboration with organizations outside the government.
The center, a priority of NIH director Francis Collins, has attracted significant funding -- more than $576 million for fiscal year 2012, and a request for $639 million for fiscal year 2013. It is headed by Christopher Austin, a Harvard-educated neurogeneticist who worked at drugmaker Merck for seven years and later at NIH.

One example of the center's approach is a deal it struck with three major drugmakers -- Pfizer, AstraZeneca, and Eli Lilly -- to share about two dozen abandoned experimental drugs with academic researchers so they can look for new uses, Science magazine reported. NIH is offering $20 million for grants to study the drugs, which were generally abandoned because they didn't work well enough on the disease for which they were developed or because a business decision sidelined them. "The goal is simple: to see whether we can teach old drugs new tricks," said Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius at a press conference.

It's worth noting that the government can't simply wave a wand to make drugs "much more quickly and efficiently." While the government is the leading funder of basic biomedical research, private-sector companies play a major role.

Indeed, the center's focus on applied science rather than basic research has been controversial with Congress and the drug industry.

At a House subcommittee hearing, former Merck CEO John Vagelos noted that pharmaceutical companies spend roughly $50 billion a year -- far more than the center would. "Does anyone in the audience believe that there is something that NCATS is going to do that the industry thinks is critical and that they are not doing? That is incredible to think that. If you believe that you believe in fairies."

Lawmakers also pressed Collins on whether funding the center could siphon money from basic research -- the traditional role of NIH.

John LaMattina, the former president of research and development at Pfizer, echoed such concerns in a column for Forbes.

"These funds would be better used to support the new generation of biomedical researchers who are going to lay the groundwork for discovering the next wave of treatments for Alzheimer"s disease, cancer, and a host of other diseases," he wrote. "The NIH should let industry do the applied R&D for drug discovery and focus its resources on the crucial basic research that is desperately needed."

We won't referee the debate over whether the center is performing an important new function for NIH. But the fact that the center was created, and was supported with a significant amount of funding, indicates that this should be a Promise Kept.

Our Sources

By Catharine Richert January 11, 2010

Medical research gets a funding boost

Advancing new drugs, vaccines and diagnostic tools was part of Barack Obama's campaign platform. It's a big promise that will likely take years to complete, but Obama has taken steps to fulfill this goal.

First, in May 2009, Obama lifted a ban on stem cell research funding, one that had long been in place under the Bush administration. Medical experts complained that the ban stymied cutting-edge medical research.

Secondly, a significant chunk of funding was allocated for such research and development in the stimulus bill. The legislation included about $100 billion for the development of science and technology, $10 billion of which was given to the National Institutes of Health. In September 2009, the administration announced that $5 billion of that $10 billion in funding would be divvied up to support 12,000 research projects in the area of biomedical research. For example, about $750 million of the funding has been invested in advanced research on the prevention and treatment of heart, lung and blood diseases.

Meanwhile, cancer research got a boost in the latest appropriations process. The National Cancer Institute was funded to the tune of $5.1 billion, an increase of $134 million over the previous year. The funding increase reflects Obama's multiyear plan to advance cancer research and treatment.

So, Obama said he would accelerate the development of important drugs, vaccines and tests, and he's taken some key steps in that direction. However, this is a big promise, and we'll be eager to see where Obama heads on this one. For now, we're moving it to In the Works.

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