By Kevin Davies and Brian Reid
November 15, 2003 | Elias Zerhouni, director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), has given his strong backing to the fledgling field of systems biology and has outlined other key initiatives in a wide-ranging commentary entitled “The NIH Roadmap,” published in the Oct. 3, 2003, issue of Science.
Zerhouni outlines the challenges facing the NIH in the 21st century, with regard to basic as well as clinical research. He describes the challenge of moving to a comprehensive, systems-based understanding of biology. His manifesto calls for a postgenome strategy that pieces together DNA, RNA, protein, lipid, and carbohydrate interactions through the creation of NIH-sponsored research centers.
"We don't know enough about … how systems are wired together," said Francis Collins, director of the National Human Genome Research Institute, at a Washington, D.C., press conference also attended by Zerhouni. But with the roadmap, he said, "we'll be able to figure out which part isn't working in disease -- and how to fix it."
Publication of the roadmap ends more than a year of labor, spurred by Zerhouni and hammered out by 16 different working groups. The NIH plans to implement roadmap initiatives over time, and Zerhouni says $1.2 billion has been allocated for projects over the next five years. The first $42 million is destined to go to interdisciplinary research centers focused on computing and protein research.
Zerhouni said the NIH would introduce Director’s Innovator Awards to encourage submission of high-risk research proposals and create a series of nanomedicine centers beginning in 2005. He also wants to revamp clinical research, a process he says is “undoubtedly the most difficult but most important challenge” in the roadmap plan. Stephen Katz, director of the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases, noted that enrollment in clinical trials continues to be low; the new effort is designed to address that. A pilot program, dubbed the National Electronics Clinical Trials and Research (NECTAR) network, will be founded to help connect the various centers, investigators, and patients involved in the trials.
Finally, the NIH research hierarchy itself would get a shakeup under the roadmap proposal, which calls for a focus on multidisciplinary teams and incentives to submit proposals for high-risk research. The incentives, in the form of awards for innovation, are intended to shift the perception of the NIH as a risk-averse funding agency.