Gail Dutton

Academia is now beginning to leverage the money, but tool companies are still waiting to feel the impact.

President Barack Obama announced last week that the NIH awarded some $5 billion in grants for fiscal year (FY) 2009, nearly half the institute’s $10.4 billion in stimulus funding allocated for FY ’09 and ’10. This represents the largest funding increase since the institute’s budget doubled between 1998 and 2003.

In 2003, researchers were concerned that funds would dry up, and those concerns are still evident today. “We certainly won’t see $10.4 billion for two years, indefinitely,” Frost & Sullivan analyst Christi Bird told GEN. “Academic researchers say this is great, but they are worried they will need more.” Tyler Jacks, Ph.D., president of the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR), made the same point in a press conference Wednesday afternoon. “As important as the stimulus funding is, without sustained funding the full potential of this investment will not be realized.

“For example, President Obama announced the expansion of the Cancer Genome Atlas project, which will now characterize the DNA of as many as 20,000 cancer specimens involving 20 cancer types. Yet this information will only have value if we can fund the research that explains how the alterations in cancer genomes can allow us to treat the cancer more effectively or prevent it from occurring at all.

“The stimulus funding is indeed a windfall for the research community, and it is very much appreciated, but we look to the administration to deliver on its promise to provide increased investment in biomedical research over the long term,” Dr. Jacks asserted. “Only in this way can we ensure that the United States remains the world’s leader in scientific breakthroughs and discovery.” A continual influx of funds is needed to leverage the results from these projects into commercialized products and clinical practices. Nonetheless, “this shows President Obama’s commitment to funding biomedical research,” said Bird. “It’s a good sign.”

The Trickle-Down Effect

The funding is expected to trickle through the system as labs hire postdoctoral fellows and purchase reagents, labware, instruments, and other components critical to their research. “Every dollar invested through NIH stimulates a second dollar of economic stimulus in the local area,” remarked David Bernstein, Ph.D., senior policy analyst, AACR. “In the long term that investment is magnified greatly.”

“I’ve talked with several companies, and they are waiting for it to hit their books,” according to Bird. Consequently, “grant recipients are encouraged to use the money quickly,” she added. Mark Groudas, vp Americas field operations at Waters, commenting on the trickle-down implications, told GEN that “To date Waters is experiencing a high level of inquiries and requests based on applications for U.S. federal stimulus funds including anticipation of the NIH grants recently referenced by President Obama.

“In general,” Groudas continued, “these scientists have been focused on the most advanced instruments available to support research. The competition among scientists for these funds is extremely high, which makes predicting the trickle-down impact on instrumentation companies challenging. That said, our sales efforts are very active, including offering preferential pricing for U.S. stimulus-funded sales.”

University labs are reporting a slight uptick in hiring resulting from the influx of grants, as Rebecca Riggins, Ph.D., research assistant professor of oncology, Georgetown Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center, noted. She is setting up her first lab as a result of a stimulus grant that was awarded to allow her to pursue research in breast cancer. “The impact of the award is tremendous. It let me hire my first full-time staff member and begin independent research,” she reported during an AACR press conference.

This stimulus package is laying the groundwork for future products that may not see clinical application for five to 10 years. Allele Biotech is a case in point. A significant amount of its funding comes from the government. It was just awarded a $150,000 SBIR grant from the NCI to develop a method for generating glycosylated cancer antigens for use in cancer diagnostic studies. In commenting on the NIH grants awarded, the firm blogged that the stimulus money is “a lifeline for those doing biomedical research.” 

Additionally, the outcome of many of those projects is likely to be used by other disciplines as well. “Nanotechnology, for example, is used not just in medicine but across industries,” Bird emphasized. For example, Chris Geddes, Ph.D., founder of Plasmonix and the developer of metal-enhanced fluorescence, recently noted that the technology not only amplifies fluorescent signals but also can be used as brightening agents in laundry detergent.

Stimulus Funding Broken Down

Of the $10.4 billion provided to the NIH, $8.2 billion were directed to the Scientific Research program. Among NIH institutes, NCI and NIAID received the lion’s share of the funds, at slightly over $1.26 billion and $1.11 billion each. California received the largest number of grants at 1,708, followed by Michigan with 1,226, and New York with 1,136. The funds have gone primarily to academic research institutions but some biotech companies also are recipients.

In addition, the NIH has developed some new grants programs for the stimulus money. For example, the Research and Research Infrastructure Grand Opportunities initiative is designed to “support high-impact ideas that lend themselves to short-term funding and may lay the foundation for new fields of scientific inquiry,” according to the NIH. Likewise, the Challenge Grant initiative is designed to fund new researchers in the hopes of stimulating innovative thinking that can jump-start research in bioethics, translational science, genomics, health disparities, clinical trial enhancement, behavioral change and prevention, as well as regenerative medicine.

Funded projects run the gamut of disciplines and approaches including research into male contraception, multivalent vaccines for biodefense, genetics and gene expression in asthma, pharmacogenomic assessments, and many other endeavors. Kaiser Permanente received the largest grant—$12.75 million—to develop a resource for genetic epidemiology research in adult health and aging. 

The Henry M. Jackson Foundation for the Advancement of Military Medicine received $10 million to identify modifiable risk factors for suicidal and protective behaviors in the U.S. Army. The smallest award of $3,280 went to Johns Hopkins University to determine the metabolic and epigenetic effects of maternal high fat diets in obesity prone rats.

The funding is being promoted as an attempt to stimulate jobs as well as research with the hope for quick results. In the biotech world, however, few results are ever quick. Nonetheless, the additional funds atop the NIH’s $30.5 billion budget, hold the promise of extra insights that were otherwise simply not in the budget.

Gail Dutton is a freelance writer for GEN. Email: [email protected].

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