NIH Increases Support for High-risk Large-impact Biomedical Research

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The National Institutes of Health (NIH) announced last week that it has increased support for high-risk, large-impact research by awarding 16 investigators the Pioneer Award; 2.5 million for each investigator over five years to pursue research in a variety of areas, including embroyonic development, autism, prions (responsible for the formation of amyloid plaques that lead to neurodegeneration) and malaria [1].

The NIH Director’s Pioneer Award is a high-risk research initiative desiged to [2]:

… support individual scientists of exceptional creativity who propose pioneering — and possibly transforming approaches — to major challenges in biomedical and behavioral research.

First announced in 2004, 9 awards were presented in September 2004, 13 awards each were made in 2005 and 2006, and 12 awards were presented last year.

Several award investigators are focusing on nanotechnology, developing tools and materials to study design principles of the brain and improve the ability to study subcellular structure in three dimensions. Many of this years awardees are also interested in developing new imaging techniques or technologies to:

  • image and study proteins in living cells
  • link behavioral responses with neuronal activity
  • image electrical activity of the heart and identify those at risk of sudden cardiac death

Two Pioneer Award recipients will focus their research on gene regulatory networks, examining how gene networks that control cell function change over time in development, disease and evolution, and how intracellular gene networks allow microbes to carry out cognitive behavior.

Other awarded research proposals include:

  • exploring the role of random variables in gene expression during cellular development and specialization
  • integrating behavioral factors into models of the development and progression of infectious and chronic diseases
  • using groups of RNA molecules to modify cellular properties
  • using stem cells to examine the mechanisms of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, a neurodegenerative disease of motor neurons

Also announced were 31 New Innovator Awards, which are restricted to early career investigators that have not held an NIH grant. The NIH Director’s New Innovator Award is designed to address two goals: stimulate highly innovative research that has the potential for significant impact and support promising new investigators.

With the flat funding of biomedical research over the last five years, young investigators are competing with well-established researchers for limited resources and are disproportionately affected. Indeed, over the past 17 years, there has been a decrease in NIH regular research grants (R01), the original and oldest grant mechanism used by NIH, awarded to junior investigators [3].

The NIH Director’s New Innovator Awards will provide 1.5 million for each investigator over five years. This is the second year that the NIH has made grants through the New Innovator Award program.

NIH Director Elias A. Zerhouni, M.D., who launched both programs during his tenure, said [4]:

Nothing is more important to me than stimulating and sustaining deep innovation, especially for early career investigators and despite challenging budgetary times. These highly creative researchers are tackling important scientific challenges with bold ideas and inventive technologies that promise to break through barriers and radically shift our understanding.

NIH funding

In July, a federal stimulus bill, principally for the war effort, provided the NIH with an additional $150 million for the end of fiscal year 2008 that ran through September. Nevertheless, NIH funding in 2008 failed to keep up with biomedical inflation for a fifth year in a row [5]. Although fiscal year 2009 started yesterday (October 1st), Research!America reports that new legislation extends NIH funding at its current 2008 levels through March 6th, 2009.

Progress in the life sciences is a major determinant of America’s health, it’s competitiveness and its standing in the world. NIH funding is imperative to help generate and maintain the biomedical workforce necessary to address the converging and daunting research questions of the 21st century. With the election just 5 weeks away, it is vitally important that you know where the presidential candidates stand on healthcare issues. The Kaiser Family Foundation has created an interactive web site where you can compare the candidates side-by-side. In addition, Research!America and partners present 2008 Your Candidates. Your Health., a website to educate voters on both presidential and congressional candidates.

Be informed so that you can make an educated decision.


  1. NIH Extends Its Commitment to Transformative Research with $138 Million for Director’s Pioneer and New Innovator Awards in 2008. National Institutes of Health News. 2008 Sep 22.
  2. NIH Director’s Pioneer Award. National Institutes of Health Roadmap for Medical Research. Acessed 2008 Sep 24.
  3. A Broken Pipeline – Flat Funding of the NIH Puts a Generation of Science at Risk. Brown University, Duke University, Harvard University, The Ohio State University, Partners Healthcare, the University of California Los Angeles, and Vanderbilt University. 2008 Mar 11.
  4. NIH Extends Its Commitment to Transformative Research with $138 Million for Director’s Pioneer and New Innovator Awards in 2008. National Institutes of Health press release. 2008 Sept 22.
  5. Summary of the FY 2008 President’s Budget. National Institutes of Health. 2007 Feb 5.
About the Author

Walter Jessen, Ph.D. is a Data Scientist, Digital Biologist, and Knowledge Engineer. His primary focus is to build and support expert systems, including AI (artificial intelligence) and user-generated platforms, and to identify and develop methods to capture, organize, integrate, and make accessible company knowledge. His research interests include disease biology modeling and biomarker identification. He is also a Principal at Highlight Health Media, which publishes Highlight HEALTH, and lead writer at Highlight HEALTH.