The NIH Roadmap Charts New Territory in Medical Research

This article was written by Nancy McGuire and appeared on the American Chemical Society's website on August 30, 2004.

Jeremy Berg of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) gave an overview of the NIH Roadmap to a standing-room-only crowd at last week’s ACS National Meeting. Berg’s Presidential Plenary lecture focused on new opportunities for cooperation between chemical and medical research in the context of the NIH’s $2 billion push for revolutionary advancement in the science of human health.

NIH, an assemblage of 27 institutes and centers, has steadily broadened its mission over the years. The organization is structured along the lines of specific diseases, organs, and disciplines, a historically based scheme that can at times produce artificial divisions among various areas of research.

The NIH Roadmap is intended to bring groups of institutes together to accelerate the pace of discovery, from the earliest discovery stages through clinical research. A series of working-group meetings and input from more than 300 leaders in academia, industry, government, and the public, produced the Roadmap. This compilation of the most compelling opportunities covers three main areas: New Pathways to Discovery, Research Teams of the Future, and Reengineering the Clinical Research Enterprise.

Fifty high-priority initiatives were selected from the more than 500 initiatives proposed. These were chosen on the basis of whether they would dramatically change the biomedical research field in the coming decade, their potential to affect the work done by the NIH institutes and centers, the importance of the initiatives to the public and other stakeholders, the unique ability of NIH to address these initiatives, and whether the NIH could afford not to undertake these efforts.

The part of the roadmap with the most potential overlap with the chemical science, New Pathways to Discovery, comprises nine implementation groups, each with a pair of codirectors and approximately 20 scientists. These teams are in charge of designing the initiatives, working with the scientific communities, putting grants in place, and other tasks associated with putting their projects in motion.

“We’re all in this together,” says Berg. All of the institutes of the NIH are full participants in the Roadmap. Each institute contributes resources proportionate to their budgets. Although specific institutes will assume leadership roles in the areas of their greatest strengths, all of the initiatives are offered to competition from researchers in all applicable fields.

The $2 billion figure reflects the cost of the program between 2004 and 2009, and it represents less than 1% of NIH’s total budget. The early years will focus heavily on the basic research initiatives represented by New Pathways, with the other two sectors assuming greater roles later on.

The chemistry community is expected to play a large role in several initiatives to develop molecular libraries and imaging techniques. The NIH Roadmap stresses public access to resources developed by the initiatives, such as molecular libraries and open-source computer software. Technology transfer programs will assist in moving the results of the research to private industry for development and implementation.

Grant awards will be announced in September, and the NIH Roadmap website provides access to an informational listserv. “Lead times tend to be short,” says Berg, and he recommends checking the website frequently for updates.