White House Boosts Translational Medicine, Drug Chip Project

Jocelyn is a staff writer for Science magazine.

National Institutes of Health (NIH) Director Francis Collins's controversial plan to launch a new center for translational biomedical research got a boost today in a White House announcement on science initiatives. NIH also rolled out an early project for the planned center, promising up to $140 million over 5 years to develop a chip for predicting drug toxicity.

The drug chip will be developed in a partnership to include NIH, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and DARPA--the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency--which is known for funding risky research. Collins says the first-ever collaboration of this kind will try to combine human cell types, such as liver and kidney cells, that can represent physiological systems and "talk to each other" on a chip that will be used to predict whether a drug will be safe. Researchers will try to grow cells in three dimensions rather than as a flat layer because that's a better way to model how a drug will act in human tissues. The project "is really ambitious," Collins says.

DARPA this week began soliciting proposals for its piece, which will focus on engineering. NIH's half of the funding, which may involve both intramural and extramural researchers, will come from the director's Common Fund.

The drug chip will be a project of the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences (NCATS), which got a mention when President Barack Obama signed a new patent bill. The White house also touted a new low-cost licensing agreement to help startup companies license inventions from NIH and FDA intramural research.

Several Senators have questioned whether NCATS is needed, and Representative Denny Rehberg (R-MT), chair of a key House of Representatives spending panel, has said NIH should not search for NCATS's director until Congress has given its approval. Undaunted, NIH this week put out an ad for the job. It is for "a potential director of a potential center," Collins explains. A failure to plan ahead, he says, "would not be responsible."

Funding for NCATS remains uncertain, though. The new center isn't mentioned in a draft House bill called a continuing resolution that would extend funding for government agencies for 7 weeks after the 2011 fiscal year ends 1 October. But the center could be included in a 2012 spending bill that a Senate panel will consider on Tuesday. Collins says NIH is also optimistic about a so-called omnibus bill funding all agencies in 2012, which could be passed in the coming weeks. "I remain very hopeful that we will end up being able to start NCATS early in fiscal 2012," Collins says.

Meanwhile, the uncertain fate of the National Center for Research Resources, which will be dissolved if and when NCATS is created, has left many wondering. Advisors were told this week that they should be ready to come back for the institute's next meeting in February, says council member Mark Lively of Wake Forest School of Medicine in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. And NCRR staff members still don't know if they'll be changing jobs in a few days. "It's all a puzzle. In 2 weeks, in theory they should report to a new boss," Lively says.

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