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NCI's Big Plans for Its Big Stimulus

With the National Institutes of Health receiving a $10.4 billion windfall thanks to the economic stimulus package, all eyes are on the agency to see how the money will transform biomedical research in the next 2 years (or at least, scientists are giving the question their full attention after they finish a frenetic effort to apply for some of that cash themselves).

Speaking today at the American Association for Cancer Research annual meeting in Denver, Colorado, John Niederhuber, who directs the National Cancer Institute, detailed how his organization is thinking of spending some of the $1.3 billion that’s coming its way. Americans “want better ways to prevent cancer; they want the earliest diagnosis; and they want new therapies with fewer side-effects that turn cancer into a condition you can live with and not die from,” said Niederhuber, according to a transcript of his speech.

How to accomplish that with a burst of money in a short time frame?

Well, Niederhuber said, in the 2009 fiscal year, NCI will fund grants that hit the 16th percentile in reviews, a big improvement over the current 12th percentile. NCI is also pushing harder into translational medicine. Niederhuber said it will expand the Cancer Genome Atlas to characterize all the genomic changes in 20 to 25 cancers; create a “small national network of patient characterization centers,” which would genetically characterize patients—something a number of medical centers, like the Mayo Clinic and Massachusetts General Hospital, are already moving to do; and create a network of “physical sciences-oncology centers” to bring together nanobiology, proteomics, and systems biology. NCI has been discussing all of these approaches for a number of months, but the expansion of the Cancer Genome Atlas represents a strong vote of confidence for a project some had criticized.

Niederhuber also briefly tackled a concern for many NCI grantees: What will happen once the stimulus money runs out after 2 years—especially given that NCI will be funding 4-year grants. “It falls to NCI to carefully and thoughtfully assume the risks of initially funding” these projects, knowing they won’t be supported by the stimulus money through their lifetime, Niederhuber admitted. And “I believe it falls, as well, to our grantees to come forward with only their strongest science”—wishful thinking perhaps, given that virtually every biomedical scientist is seeking a slice of the stimulus package.