NIH to Create Translational Science Center

7 December 2010 4:18 pm

National Institutes of Health (NIH) Director Francis Collins said today that he is moving ahead with a plan to create a new center focused on translational science—his biggest initiative yet. The center could be up and running a year from now, despite concerns that it may mean dismantling another NIH center.

Debate over the proposal flared at an NIH advisory board meeting this morning. Nearly 20 groups and investigators supported by the National Center for Research Resources, which would be partly absorbed by the new center, sent letters or gave testimony expressing concern that existing NCRR programs might be lost. "It's a very large organization being done on a very fast time scale, and the community that will be affected needs more time to provide input," said biochemist Mark Lively of Wake Forest University School of Medicine in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, a member of NCRR's advisory council, before the meeting. NCRR Director Barbara Alving urged the board instead to expand NCRR into the new translational center.

Despite such concerns, the board voted 12-1 to create the new center. Only Jeremy Berg, director of the National Institute of General Medical Sciences, voted no; he is "concerned that the implications for the rest of NIH hadn't been adequately discussed," he said afterward.

Collins called the decision to go ahead "a momentous occasion" because the center is being created "on the basis of scientific arguments" and not politics, which has "rarely" happened at NIH.

The proposal came from the Scientific Management Review Board (SMRB), a panel of outside scientists and NIH institute directors whose task is to find ways to streamline NIH's structure. An SMRB working group on translational medicine and therapeutics concluded in a draft summary in November that NIH needs to do more work in this area.

The center would house several existing programs at NIH, including the $113 million Molecular Libraries screening program, a $25 million effort called Therapeutics for Rare and Neglected Diseases, and NCRR's Clinical and Translational Science Awards (CTSA). It would also fold in the Cures Acceleration Network, a drug-development program created by the health care reform bill but not yet funded.

The most controversial issue seems to be the fate of NCRR programs. The CTSA grants cost $490 million a year, about 40% of NCRR's $1.2 billion budget, Alving said. It's not clear what would happen to the rest of NCRR's portfolio, which includes support for construction and instrumentation, primate centers and other model animal resources, and grants for minority institutions and states that don't have much NIH funding.

SMRB agreed that a working group of NIH staff members will report back in 3 months on NCRR programs. "We want to protect the programs and the people," Collins said.

NIH staffers have worried that Collins had to dissolve an institute if he wanted to move quickly to establish a new one. A 2006 law that created SMRB also capped the total number of NIH institutes and centers at the current 27. Collins decided last month to combine the National Institute on Drug Abuse and the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism in a new addictions institute, which would free up a slot. But that merger is on a longer time line. Collins says Congress might allow NIH to preserve NCRR and exceed the cap as "sort of an overlap" for 1 year.

This week, Collins expects to send his recommendation for the new translational center to Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, who will forward it to legislators. Congress will have 180 days to object; otherwise, the new institute will move forward.

This item has been corrected. The original version of this article incorrectly reported the result of a vote on the new center.

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