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Vol. LXIV, No. 19
September 14, 2012

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NIGMS at 50: Investing in Discovery

On the front page...

What do the Rolling Stones, James Bond movies and NIGMS have in common? They all started in 1962 and are still going strong.

After a half-century of supporting basic, non-disease-targeted research and training, NIGMS is reflecting on the many ways it has increased understanding of fundamental biological processes and disease mechanisms. It is also looking to the future, as indicated by its anniversary theme: “investigate, innovate, inspire.”

NIGMS grantees focus on discovering how cells communicate with each other and their environment, how genes are regulated and how proteins accomplish their varied tasks in the body. This knowledge forms the foundation for new and better ways to improve health and treat or prevent disease.


Advances made with institute support include:

  • Discovering a gene-silencing process called RNA interference, or RNAi, that is both a powerful research tool and a promising approach for treating diseases.
  • Revealing how a protein’s shape affects its function, which plays a key role in health and disease and also informs the design of new drugs.
  • Increasing survival from burn injury, in part by improving methods of wound care, nutrition and infection control.
  • Explaining how genes affect the way a person responds to drugs, including those to treat cancer and prevent blood clots.
  • Shedding light on the critical functions of carbohydrates, sugar molecules found on all living cells that are vital to fertilization, inflammation, blood clotting and viral infection.
  • Modeling infectious disease outbreaks and the impact of interventions through computer simulations, providing valuable information to public health policymakers.
  • Developing new methods to look inside cells and other living systems.
Acting NIGMS director Dr. Judith Greenberg (l) and NIGMS-supported Nobel laureates pose at a May event sponsored by FASEB to mark its 100th anniversary and NIGMS’s 50th anniversary. Now an assistant professor at the University of Pennsylvania, Dr. Elizabeth Grice.
Acting NIGMS director Dr. Judith Greenberg (l) and NIGMS-supported Nobel laureates pose at a May event sponsored by FASEB to mark its 100th anniversary and NIGMS’s 50th anniversary. The Nobelists are (starting second from l) Dr. Roderick MacKinnon, Rockefeller University; Dr. Andrew Fire, Stanford University School of Medicine; and Dr. Thomas Cech, University of Colorado, Boulder.

Now an assistant professor at the University of Pennsylvania, Dr. Elizabeth Grice was a postdoctoral fellow in the NIGMS Pharmacology Research Associate Program. While in this program, she conducted research on the skin microbiome in an NHGRI lab.

The institute devotes most of its funds to investigator-initiated research grants in cell biology, biophysics, genetics, developmental biology, chemistry, pharmacology, computational biology and other fields. It also funds a limited number of research center grants in such areas as structural biology, chemistry, computational modeling, trauma and burn research, systems biology and biomedical technology. The important scientific resources it supports include the NIGMS Human Genetic Cell Repository and the Protein Data Bank.

Fast Facts About NIGMS

• Budget: $2.4 billion, fourth largest at NIH

• Number of research grants: about 4,700

• Number of trainees: more than 4,300, about a quarter of the NIH total

• Number of Nobel laureates: 74, more than half of the NIH total; see for a list.

• 50th anniversary web site:

Distinguished Recent Directors

Dr. Ruth Kirschstein
, 1974-1993

The longest-serving NIGMS director and the first woman to lead an NIH institute, she played a key role in shaping the institute’s basic research and training mission.

Dr. Marvin Cassman,
1993-2002 (acting 1993-1996)

Under Cassman’s leadership, NIGMS launched several major programs, including the Protein Structure Initiative and the Pharmacogenomics Research Network.
Dr. Jeremy Berg, 2003-2011

Berg promoted communication, transparency and dialogue with the scientific community through the Feedback Loop blog and other outreach efforts.

Dr. Judith Greenberg
(acting), 2002-2003 and 2011-present

Greenberg oversaw the development of the institute’s strategic plan issued in 2008 and its strategic plan for research training in 2011. She also led the NIH Director’s Pioneer and New Innovator award programs.

Dr. Richard Okita
Dr. Richard Okita, one of the employees who participated in the NIGMS blood drive in April, displays the flyer promoting the activity while making his donation.

The Biomedical Technology Research Center program, which was recently transferred to NIGMS from NCRR, marks its own 50th anniversary this year. The program has been responsible for harnessing technologies from the physical sciences— such as laboratory computers, synchrotron radiation, magnetic spin resonance and mass spectrometry— for use in biomedical research.

Commitment to Training, Workforce Development and Diversity

NIGMS has a longstanding commitment to training the next generation of scientists. Its programs stress approaches that cut across disciplinary and departmental lines to prepare trainees for creative research careers in a variety of areas.

Some, like the Medical Scientist Training Program, address particularly compelling needs—in this case, for investigators who hold the combined M.D.-Ph.D. degree and are well trained in basic science and clinical research. Others train scientists to conduct research in rapidly growing areas like biotechnology or at the interfaces between fields such as chemistry and biology or behavioral and biomedical sciences.

The institute also has a Pharmacology Research Associate Program—its only intramural activity— in which postdoctoral scientists with an interest in pharmacology or related sciences conduct research in NIH or FDA labs.

Integral to NIGMS’s workforce development efforts is its dedication to increasing diversity. Two NIGMS programs focused on this goal—the Minority Access to Research Careers program and the Minority Biomedical Research Support program— are marking their 40th anniversaries this year.

The most recent addition to NIGMS’s activities in this area is the Institutional Development Award (IDeA) program, which builds research capacities in states that historically have had low levels of NIH funding. Formerly administered by NCRR, IDeA supports basic, clinical and translational research; faculty development; and infrastructure improvements in 23 states and Puerto Rico.

Marking the Milestone

One way that NIGMS is marking its golden anniversary is by sponsoring symposia and other activities at scientific meetings. These range from a day-long symposium at the American Chemical Society’s national meeting to student poster awards at the annual Biomedical Research Conference for Minority Students and the annual meeting of the Society for Advancement of Chicanos and Native Americans in Science.

On Oct. 17, the institute will hold a special 50th anniversary DeWitt Stetten, Jr., Symposium with a trio of speakers who reflect the breadth of its mission. The event will also feature presentations by a dozen poster award winners.

As an expression of its interest in science education, NIGMS will host Cell Day, an interactive web chat room modeled on NHGRI’s DNA Day. During the Nov. 2 event, NIGMS scientists will answer middle and high school students’ questions about cell biology and research careers.

NIGMS staff members have chosen the 50th anniversary as a time to give back to the community. In April, the institute sponsored a week-long blood drive, with donations going to the NIH Blood Bank. And in June, staff collected and delivered nonperishable food items to the Edmond J. Safra Family Lodge.

As NIGMS reflects on its progress over the past five decades, it also looks forward. “Our challenge for the future is to continue to attract and train the best minds and to champion their unfettered creativity,” says acting NIGMS director Dr. Judith Greenberg. “And if we do that, we can expect spectacular discoveries ahead.”

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