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Roadmap Debuts at Press Club Briefing

By Rich McManus

Photos by Ernie Branson

On the Front Page...

NIH's scientific "Roadmap Initiative for Medical Research" debuted before almost 60 reporters Sept. 30 as the plan's chief cartographer, NIH director Dr. Elias Zerhouni, called for a transformation in the way NIH conducts medical research so as to speed widely touted benchtop discoveries to the bedsides of patients not only in this country, but also the world.


Speaking at the National Press Club in Washington and flanked by a cadre of institute directors, Zerhouni said, "NIH research is at a critical point in history" and must take swift advantage of "a true explosion of knowledge in science and medicine...2003 is an historic moment in medical research."

Dr. Francis Collins
The plan, funded at a level of about $130 million in FY 2004 but expected to reach a total of $2.1 billion over the next 5 years, includes three broad themes, 28 specific initiatives, and is the result of input from more than 300 outside advisors. Zerhouni said the advice "formed a compelling consensus on where we need to invest." No less than the "turbocharging of NIH" is expected of the initiative, noted Zerhouni, adding, "Truly, this is not business as usual for medical research."

NIH director Dr. Elias Zerhouni launches Roadmap initiative.

Sketching the roadmap's three main themes were a succession of institute directors led by NHGRI's Dr. Francis Collins, who described "New Pathways to Discovery." He called the roadmap effort, which has involved every institute and center director at NIH and their senior staff for more than a year, "a bold, historic plan...Some will say these are awfully bold ideas — but they said that 14 years ago about the Human Genome Project...We have a good track record of ambitious and bold plans at NIH." He concluded, "The potential of this project is almost impossible to overstate. This will be a new way of conducting biomedical research."

NCCAM director Dr. Stephen Straus said there is "no better time than the present to harness the power of the new biology...What used to take us months or years to accomplish in the 1970s can now be done in days...We must figure out how thousands of genes and proteins work together, and how they interact with the environment." This will take a new team approach, he said, which is a distinct departure from the traditional model of isolated individuals pursuing their own scientific leads. Straus envisions greater collaboration with industry and grantees, and an eventual OD position titled Director's Liaison for Public/Private Partnerships.

NCCAM director Dr. Stephen Straus (l) and NIAMS director Dr. Stephen Katz described major Roadmap themes.

A new NIH Director's Innovator Award, he added, will help "enlist creative, out-of-the-box thinkers," that he likened to chess masters. "We will invest in people and encourage substantial risks." Zerhouni said that winners of these awards will receive $500,000 per year for 5 years. Straus said 10 such investigators would be funded in the first year.

Describing the infrastructure that will support a revitalized effort in clinical research was NIAMS director Dr. Stephen Katz, who outlined plans for a National Clinical Research Associates Program, a Translational Core Center, Regional Translation Research Centers and a National Electronic Clinical Trials Network. Efforts will also be made to "harmonize and simplify a now-dense array of regulatory requirements that discourage careers in clinical research." Human subject protection, he emphasized, would be paramount in all of the foregoing.

Katz outlined plans for a National Clinical Research Associates Program, a Translational Core Center, Regional Translation Research Centers and a National Electronic Clinical Trials Network.

"Our singular goal is to synergize research all across NIH," concluded Zerhouni. All of the roadmap components are to be integrated with one another, he said, with the result that NIH "brings our own best research to peoples' homes...But this will require a re-engineering of the way we do research."

The 70-minute session ended with questions from reporters, during which Zerhouni addressed cost issues ("We will create a common pool of investment resources to be dedicated to these efforts, and there will be lead institutes."), authorities to pursue the plan ("No legislation is needed to accomplish this goal, as long as the peer-review process is followed.") and justification for the major portfolio review undergirding the Roadmap: "No organization of the excellence and complexity of NIH should be without periodic reevaluation...No great organization remains great without change."

Details of the new initiative may be found at

NCI director Dr. Andrew von Eschenbach (l) fills in some Roadmap details at the press conference as Zerhouni listens.

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