The past year's science and health advances, made possible by funding from the National Institute of General Medical Sciences (NIGMS), canvass a diverse array of biomedicine. I believe it is truer than ever that giving scientists the freedom to explore the unknown allows them to make important, and often serendipitous, connections. These links are key to understanding the ingredients of good health and the paths of disease.
Basic researchers, who by nature cross disciplines in their pursuit of knowledge, play an increasingly important role in modern biomedicine. A clear example came in April 2008, when an NIGMS grantee at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology helped solve a case involving contaminated medicine. In this scenario, public health officials discovered tainted batches of heparin, an effective and inexpensive medicine that doctors use to control blood clotting. Teaming with researchers from academia, industry, and the Food and Drug Administration, the grantee examined the structures of molecules within contaminated batches of the drug and developed a rapid and sensitive method to detect the impurity. The NIGMS grantee also showed that the contaminants could be responsible for the adverse reactions in humans. This innovative strategy is likely to lead to new screening methods for detecting impurities in other types of medicines.
Another important breakthrough this past year came from the Institute's consistent support of research on the basic biology of stem cells. In late 2007, a NIGMS grantee from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, reprogrammed ordinary skin cells to become induced pluripotent stem cells. These "iPS" cells appear to look and act, in most regards, just like human embryonic stem cells, which are capable of changing into any of the body's more than 200 cell types. In the short time since this pioneering work, other scientists have created patient-specific cells that enable the study of diseases at a much more precise level than ever before possible. For example, just recently another NIGMS grantee from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, crafted iPS cells to make insulin, a discovery with obvious implications for treating diabetes. Continued, diversified support of stem cell research will undoubtedly speed progress toward achieving personalized therapies for many conditions.
The groundbreaking discovery of microRNAs shattered current dogma that proteins were the sole regulators of gene control. This research conducted by two long-time NIGMS grantees, in addition to a scientist from the U.K., was awarded the 2008 Albert Lasker Basic Medical Research Award, known to many as "America's Nobel Prize," as this discovery will continue to fuel scientists' efforts to understand and interpret the language of the human genome.
I would also like to showcase the NIH EUREKA (Exceptional, Unconventional Research Enabling Knowledge Acceleration) program that will help investigators test novel, often unconventional hypotheses or tackle major methodological or technical challenges. NIGMS has taken the lead for NIH in establishing the EUREKA awards and currently, nine NIH Institutes and Centers are participating in this program. Last year's call for EUREKA proposals yielded many innovative ideas with the potential for extraordinarily significant impact on many areas of science.
A diverse research portfolio, such as the examples provided above, provides the best opportunity for the scientific community to catalyze progress toward improving health and curing disease. In addition to supporting innovative researchers, the Institute continues to support coordinated research programs that comprise large groups of researchers spanning many institutions. In April 2008, NIGMS led the creation of the Global Alliance for Pharmacogenomics, a partnership between NIH and the Center for Genomic Medicine in Japan. U.S. scientists joining the global initiative are members of the NIH Pharmacogenetics Research Network (PGRN), a nationwide consortium of research groups investigating how genes affect an individual's response to medicines. This new partnership offers the chance to share resources and expertise toward speeding scientific knowledge in this key area that is highly relevant to public health.
Advantages of large-scale science initiatives like the PGRN and others, such as the Protein Structure Initiative (PSI) which establishes an efficient pipeline for determining the three-dimensional shapes of proteins, create new mechanisms for sharing the resources it has developed with the scientific community. We make sure that instrumentation, data, and resources developed at NIGMS-funded large-scale science facilities are made broadly available to all scientists. This past year, NIGMS established both a Structural Genomics Knowledgebase and a Materials Repository to transform products of the PSI into knowledge important for understanding living systems and disease.
Last year's intensive planning efforts included meetings with the scientific community and other stakeholders, and culminated in the January 2008 publication of Investing in Discovery: National Institute of General Medical Sciences Strategic Plan 2008-2012. In addition to sustaining our investment in individual-investigator driven basic research and collaborative science, we have committed a substantial effort toward addressing workforce development, a key component of the NIGMS mission. We believe that workforce diversity is fundamentally a systems issue and are currently identifying ways to synergize training and diversity across Institute programs. This past year, we also issued a call for research to investigate various interventions for boosting careers in biomedical and behavioral research, with the goal of providing a strong evidence base for those interventions that effectively promote the pursuit of biomedical research career paths.