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Mass scientists ask NIH to continue support for biomedical technology

As reported this week, NIH plans to dismantle its National Center for Research Resources and transfer some agency duties into a new, game-changing drug development program called the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences.

Researchers at MIT and BU have joined the hundreds who have posted comments on an NIH website, where they object to the possible loss of the Biomedical Technology Research Centers (BTRC) which offer research support in the development of imaging systems, laser technology and informatics.

Here’s what they had to say:

Catherine L. Drennan

Professor of Chemistry and Biology

Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator

I am deeply concerned about how the NIH reorganization to create a new center that will focus on translational medicine and therapeutics will affect NCRR’s Biomedical Technology Research Centers (so-called P41 programs). NCRR P41 grants fund synchrotrons (including Advanced Photon Source (APS)) to carry out technology development, collaborative driving biomedical projects, user support, training and dissemination. Without these sources of support, the US synchrotron structural biology program would be severely underfunded.

My research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology requires extensive synchrotron access. We routinely utilize the North East Collaborative Access Team (NE-CAT) at APS, as do many other MIT laboratories. The loss of this facility would dramatically affect my ability to do research, research that is also funded by the NIH (GM). It would also negatively impact structural biology as a whole at MIT. Since structural biology is an essential part of translational medicine and therapeutics, this reorganization of centers may inadvertently hurt the research area that it is trying to support. I strongly recommend that the effect on structural biology be considered before any reorganization is carried out.

Catherine E. Costello

BU Mass Spectrometry Resource for Biology and Medicine

I am writing to express my deep concern about the future of the Biomedical Technology Resource Centers (BTRC). The BTRC Research Resource Centers advance the US capability for medical treatment and research across the whole spectrum of human health and represent a strength of the NIH program that that is unique in the world and is widely admired abroad as an example of intelligent planning to foster the most effective growth of science and dissemination of research results. The Shared Instrumentation program is closely linked to the Resource Centers and enables health centers, universities and research institutions to obtain state-of-the-art instrumentation so that technology that has reached the stage of commercial production can be made available to support health-related research that is sponsored by the many NIH Institutes. Both programs cross the interests of all existing Institutes and therefore neither should be confined to a single disease-specific Institute. The goals of both programs are the development and delivery of the most advanced care to the whole population and many BTRC-funded programs, including our own, have strong ties to the CTSAs.

NIH wisely established the Research Resources in the 1960s, to answer the national need for access of health researchers to high technology and to foster technology development directed toward the improvement of human health. This program has been remarkably successful and has contributed in very clear ways to US leadership in medical and health-related scientific research. I have personally been identified with two Resources; I have held positions as Associate Director of the MIT Mass Spectrometry Resource from 1974-1994 and as the Founding Director of the BU Mass Spectrometry Resource for Biology and Medicine since 1995. With strong encouragement from NIHNCRR, I developed the plan to shift the P41 Resource activities to Boston University School of Medicine specifically to integrate our technology development into the milieu of disease diagnosis and patient care. In addition to our continuing exploration of new approaches, the Shared Instrumentation Grant program has enabled our Center to acquire four instruments that address the established needs of many clinicians and researchers. I serve or have served on the advisory boards of several Research Resources, and on numerous review panels for others, and thus am particularly well aware of their many activities that are directed toward the translation of cutting-edge research into advances in health care.

BTRC programs have different timescales and, often, larger budgets than do those of individual, investigator-driven research projects that usually focus on specific diseases. Transfer of some or all of the Research Resources or the Shared Instrumentation Grant program to an institute where their unusual characteristics are not fully appreciated and where they will be put into competition with funding requests for projects whose interests are narrower (but often more vocal and more visible to the public) would likely result in the erosion – and eventual disappearance, of these critical assets.

Retaining the BRTC functions as a closely integrated, well-run program within NCRR provides the best chance for their continued high level of leadership and productivity and their ability to serve the needs of the whole health community. If there is no long-term means to retain NCRR as a separate institute, then administration of these programs as a single block within the new Institute that will house the CTSAs is the best alternative. I will be happy to provide any further information that may help your committee to make its decisions.

Stephen J. Lippard

Department of Chemistry

Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Dear Colleagues:

I am the Arthur Amos Noyes Professor of Chemistry at MIT and I have three R01 research grants from NIH.

In all three, the BTRC resource centers, most notably SLAC at SSRL and the Argonne facility, but also NE-CAT, have been of exceptional value to me in my research programs.

We use these facilities to perform single crystal X-ray diffraction and XAS studies. Eventually we hope that they will provide NRVS so that we no longer have to go to Japan.

Examples of breakthrough studies using these facilities include our structural work on methane monooxygenase and on platinum anticancer drugs bound to DNA in complex with proteins, the nucleosome, and RNA PolII.

The BRTC center program is a unique mechanism at NIH for developing and supporting a broad range of new technologies, important for future innovation and discovery, leading to improved diagnosis, therapies and health care, including anticancer drug research, a major effort in my group.

I write to urge that the BRTC national center program be kept together as an integrated coherent program, accomplished by moving the BTRC Program with supporting staff as an integrated program block to the new Translational Science center.

Thank you for your consideration of this request.


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