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NIH backs disease detectives and RNA sleuths

With the budget of the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) all but stagnant and grant-funding rates at historic lows, the agency’s wiggle room for spending decisions is increasingly tight. But one area in which agency director Francis Collins retains both discretion and dollar power is the NIH director’s Common Fund, a US$545-million pot of money for trans-institute, trans-disciplinary — and, hopefully, transformative — initiatives, each lasting no more than ten years. Today, Collins announced the latest two of these strategic deployments, both of which will launch in 2013.

Building on a successful intramural programme that has generated lots of interest, one initiative is the Undiagnosed Diseases Program (UDP), which will fund extramural centres to work as detectives to diagnose mysterious maladies (see ‘Last chance clinic‘). The UDP will receive $145 million over five years.

Another five-year initiative will invest $130 million to study how cells communicate with each other using RNA located in the spaces outside and between them. The Extracellular RNA Communication programme will also investigate whether and how RNA is taken up from food and the environment, and will look at their use in the clinic as potential diagnostics or therapies.

New money is always fun, but there can be pain on the other end, when these big, one-time grants run out. For instance, as Nature Biotechnology reports here, the Common Fund’s backing for NIH’s Molecular Libraries and Imaging Program, which offers academic scientists high-throughput screening capabilities for the development of small-molecule probes, is ending next year, leaving the future uncertain for many of the extramural centres it established.

See here for a sampling of Common Fund initiatives launched two years ago — projects now almost halfway through their five-year courses. And for a detailed catalogue, with attached price tags, of all of the more than 20 projects the Common Fund now supports, see this document from US President Barack Obama’s 2013 budget request.


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