In this section:
» Protein Structure Initiative
» Stem Cell Exploratory Centers
» Complex Biomedical Systems Research
» Chemical Methodologies and Library Development
» Models of Infectious Disease Agent Study
» "Glue" Grants
The vast majority of NIGMS grants support investigator-initiated studies in basic biomedical fields. These grants yield a wealth of new knowledge that forms the foundation for medical advances. The Institute also mounts initiatives to catalyze research and new directions in areas of special interest or opportunity. Recent developments in several of these initiatives are described below.
Protein Structure Initiative
Knowing the structures of proteins helps us understand how they function in health and disease. The NIGMS Protein Structure Initiative will give scientists the ability to predict protein structures much more quickly, easily, and cheaply than is possible today. This knowledge will provide insights into the damage caused by misshapen proteins and aid in the development of new medicines.
The current, first phase of the Protein Structure Initiative supports pilot centers that are assembling a pipeline for rapid protein structure determination. The next phase, called the production phase, will begin in FY 2005. It will consist of several large, high-throughput centers that produce and determine the structures of many proteins as well as smaller centers that focus on challenging classes of proteins, such as membrane proteins and proteins from humans. Some of the smaller centers will also seek ways to overcome technological barriers to rapid, automated protein structure determination, while others will study proteins related to specific diseases.
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Stem Cell Exploratory Centers
Human embryonic stem cells offer a unique way to ask basic questions about the biology of all cells. Scientists hope that stem cell research will shed light onand possibly yield new ways to treatmany conditions, including Parkinson's disease, diabetes, spinal cord injury, heart disease, arthritis, vision and hearing loss, and wound healing.
Since research on human embryonic stem cells is still in its infancy, NIGMS has created programs to encourage scientists to use stem cells to explore fundamental biological processes. One of these programs establishes Exploratory Centers for Human Embryonic Stem Cell Research to improve understanding of the basic biology of stem cells and to promote the use of these cells as a model system for studying health and disease. Toward this end, the centers will train scientists to work with stem cells and develop new tools for studying the cells. The centers are required to use federally approved stem cell lines that are listed on the NIH Human Embryonic Stem Cell Registry.
NIGMS funded three exploratory centers in late FY 2003 at the University of Washington, Seattle/Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, the University of Michigan Medical School, WiCell Research Institute in Madison, Wisconsin. The Institute may fund additional centers in FY 2005.
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Complex Biomedical Systems Research
NIGMS awarded two new grants in FY 2003 for Centers of Excellence in Complex Biomedical Systems Research. These centers are part of a larger effort to promote quantitative, interdisciplinary approaches to problems of biomedical significance, particularly those that involve the complex, interactive behavior of many components. Although the focus of each center is different, they all involve teams of biologists working with scientists in quantitative areas such as mathematics, physics, computer science, and engineering.
At the center based at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, scientists will explore how collections of genes or proteins work together to carry out biological functions. The team will test the hypothesis that such collections behave as "modules" to perform specific functions essential to an organism's survival and reproduction.
The center at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which is also in Cambridge, will study "biological circuits" in human cells and tissues. By combining experiments with computer-based analysis and modeling of living systems, the researchers hope to predict how these circuits function under normal circumstances and how they go awry in disease.
The first two centers, which were funded in FY 2002, are at the University of Washington, Friday Harbor Laboratories, and Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio.
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Chemical Methodologies and Library Development
In recent years, chemists have learned to create high-quality collections of diverse chemical structures. These so-called chemical libraries are powerful tools for discovering potential new drugs and also for identifying molecules that scientists can use to probe biological processes. Because better methods are needed to realize the promise and utility of these libraries, NIGMS established Centers of Excellence in Chemical Methodologies in Library Development.
The Institute funded the first two of these centers in FY 2002, at Boston University and the University of Pittsburgh. In FY 2003, NIGMS funded two more centers, at the University of Kansas in Lawrence and Harvard Medical School. NIGMS expects that its investment in these centers will greatly expand the toolkit for a powerful experimental technique and pave the way for the development of new medicines.
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Models of Infectious Disease Agent Study
NIGMS plans to fund the first pilot projects in its Models of Infectious Disease Agent Study (MIDAS) network in FY 2004. MIDAS, which is an integral component of the NIH biodefense plan, is designed to improve the nation's ability to respond to biological threats promptly and effectively. The network will develop computational tools and models of emerging infectious diseases caused by naturally occurring or intentionally released agents. These tools and models will help policymakers, public health professionals
, and researchers forecast, detect, control, and prevent new disease outbreaks.
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The newest NIGMS "glue" grant began in FY 2003 and focuses on the structure and function of lipids, which are fats and oils that have many essential functions in the cell. Imbalances in lipids cause or contribute to a wide range of ailments, including heart disease, arthritis, cancer, and Alzheimer's s disease. A detailed understanding of lipids will improve understanding of their role in health and illness and will inform the development of new treatments. The lipid grant is led by scientists at the University of California, San Diego.
NIGMS funds four other glue grants, all of which bring together diverse groups of scientists to tackle biomedical research problems so large and complex that no single laboratory or small group of laboratories could take them on. These grants focus on communication within and between cells (one grant is led by the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas and another is led by The Scripps Research Institute), cell movement (led by the University of Virginia School of Medicine in Charlottesville), and the body's reaction to a burn or other traumatic injury (led by the Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston). NIGMS glue grants benefit the broader research community by generating and sharing data and research materials, as well as by serving as a testing ground for a new, highly collaborative approach to biomedical research.
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