WASHINGTON, May 5, 2004 -- The National Institutes of Health formally kicked off its nanomedicine initiative Tuesday by soliciting comments from the scientific community to help shape the research project aimed at developing new tools to improve human health.
The initiative, which organizers say could last a decade, is a broad program that seeks to catalog molecules and understand molecular pathways and networks. Nanomedicine is one of nine initiatives that make up NIH's roadmap, a long-term plan for improving and accelerating biomedical research.
"This is not nanotechnology for the sake of nanotechnology," said Paul Sieving, director of NIH's National Eye Institute, where the initiative is being centered. "This is a process deliberately driven to the culmination of getting to clinical practice addressing biological issues of health and to do that in a context of the overall mission of the National Institutes of Health."
Unlike many research projects, NIH is not predetermining specific areas of study. Instead, it is calling for proposals aimed at helping to fulfill the project's goals.
"What we are doing is so new, we need intellectual diversity and even debate to challenge us to find the best way to proceed with the nanomedicine initiative," said Raynard Kington, NIH's deputy director.
Much of the initial research will take place at three or four Nanomedicine Development Centers to be established by the initiative. NIH is expected to release a request for applications by Friday from those interested in starting a center. It's the first step in a three-part process and specifically calls on applicants to outline their vision for the content and structure that will be examined at a center.
From these outlines, NIH will award about 20 grants for concept development plans and will select the centers from those plans by September 2005. The centers will be staffed by teams of scientists from many different areas, such as biologists, mathematicians, biochemists and engineers.
One example of a possible area of study: A probe of molecular events inside cells on "biologically relevant time scales that may be on the order of milliseconds or even microseconds," according to an outline on the initiative released at the meeting.
NIH is setting aside $6 million for the centers in 2005 and funding in 2006 may allow for creation of additional centers while also providing money for those already established.
Jeffery Schloss, program director for technology development coordination at NIH's National Human Genome Research Institute, said the "ultimate goal (of the initiative) is designing systems to engineer within living cells."
James Baker, director of the Center for Biologic Nanotechnology at the University of Michigan, outlined some of the issues surrounding nanomedicine research. They included ensuring the biocompatibility of some nanodevices in humans and developing devices that may eventually reduce the cost of health care.
During a question-and-answer session, some participants raised concerns that the nanomedicine initiative may be too focused on basic molecular research and not on more short-term applications that can be developed to improve health.
Baker said he believes the basic research will "throw off applications" in the short term that also will help drive the project's long-term goals.
Carlo Montemagno, a professor of biomedical engineering at the University of California, Los Angeles, said it is important to note that medical research focused at the nano level has been taking place for some time and many projects are coming to fruition.
Schloss added that there are other nanomedicine projects under way at NIH that are not related to the roadmap initiative and are aimed at producing more immediate results.