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New translational research center generates controversy among scientists.

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New Translational Research Center
Generates Controversy Among
he National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences (NCATS), considered to
be a signature project for Francis Collins, MD,
director of the National Institutes of Health,
is expected to place increased emphasis and
funding on speeding the transition from discoveries in the lab to new medications. Yet
critics have questioned whether it will just be
a tool for collaborating with the pharmaceutical industry and whether it will decrease funding for other crucial research priorities, such as
eliminating health disparities.
“As originally described, NCATS sounded
very much like a drug development scheme
that was going to be an underfunded research
organization,” says Bruce Cronstein, MD,
Paul R. Esserman professor of medicine and
director of the Clinical and Translational Science Institute at New York University School
of Medicine. Dr. Cronstein is also co-chair of
the executive committee that oversees the current Clinical and Translational Science Awards
(CTSA) program, a network of 60 translational research centers, which will form the backbone of the new NCATS. “Some researchers
were also worried that there would be changes
in research programs, such as those at CTSA
research centers, that would mean that some
areas of medical research would be neglected,
such as community-based health research,”
Dr. Cronstein says.
Opposition also came from scientists
who directed research programs at the current National Center for Research Resources
(NCRR), which would be disbanded in order
to form NCATS. U.S. law restricts the number of centers within the NIH to 27, so programs within the NCRR would move to the
new NCATS or be housed under the umbrella
of other NIH centers.
“When we proposed the reorganization of
the National Center for Research Resources, we
got a lot of feedback from the scientific community,” says Kathy Hudson, deputy director
for science, outreach, and policy at the NIH.
The NIH first proposed the establishment of
the new NCATS in December 2010. After the
proposal for NCATS, some researchers worried
that specific NCRR programs might be elimi-
nated or de-emphasized or might not be placed
in the right homes, according to Hudson.
Some members of Congress also expressed
concern that strengthening and speeding up
translational research would mean forging
partnerships with investors and the pharmaceutical industry. “People were worried about
contamination from pharma and whether a
government agency could develop new drugs
any better than the pharmaceutical industry,”
Dr. Cronstein says. “But that reflected a misunderstanding of the nature of the center. It’s
never been intended that it be the sole developer of a drug from finding a target to getting
licensure for a therapy.”
As Dr. Collins sought to educate researchers and members of Congress about NCATS
and also came up with an altered plan for the
reorganization of the NCRR, some of those
fears were allayed. Yet there are still critics.
In a recent letter to Health and Human
Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, Congressman Denny Rehberg (R-Montana) expressed concern about the creation of NCATS
and whether funding it would decrease the
importance of programs such as the Institutional Developmental Awards (IDeA) program, which supports research in poor, rural,
and minority communities. “It’s important
that any plan (for NCATS) maintain the current scope of programs and expertise … within
the National Center for Research Resources,”
wrote Congressman Rehberg, chairman of the
House of Representatives subcommittee on
Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, and Related Agencies.
After hearing from Congress and the research community, Dr. Collins made modifications to the final plan for NCATS so that
NCRR programs such as IDeA would move
to the National Institute of General Medical
Sciences, rather than the director’s office as
originally planned. “My impression is that for
the most part, the individual programs within
the NCRR are contented or even downright
enthusiastic about their proposed placements,”
Dr. Hudson says. But in fact, some critics do
not see such a rosy picture for research programs now within the NCRR.
Among the dissenting voices are those
who worry that research into health disparities will receive less attention and money, an
opinion shared by Wayne Riley, MD, chairman of the NIH’s National Advisory Council
On Minority Health and Health Disparities.
Dr. Riley is also president and chief executive
officer at Meharry Medical College in Nashville, Tennessee.
Research into U.S. health care disparities
is now spearheaded by the new National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities (NIMHD), formed in September 2010
and authorized by the Patient Protection and
Affordable Care Act of 2010. To find the most
cost-effective solutions for health care disparities, NIHMD needs to unite and house two of
the nation’s research programs, IDeA and the
Research Centers for Minority Institutions,
which funds research projects at minority colleges and universities, Dr. Riley says.
“We hope that the creation of the new
NCATS does not ‘suck all the oxygen’ out of
other NIH priorities and mandates, particularly the important work of health disparities
research,” he adds.
Creation of NCATS requires an appropriation by Congress, but plans for finding
a director for the new translational research
institute and the reorganization of NCRR are
moving ahead. Currently, the reorganization
of the NCRR is planned to start this month.
But in an era of constrained budgets, when
monies for NIH research are likely to be decreased, the level of funding for NCATS is still
up in the air, according to Dr. Hudson.
“Dr. Collins is impatient to see the scientific advances that are emerging from research
laboratories be more rapidly, readily, and efficiently translated into new medicines for the
diseases that affect many in the United States,”
he says.
DOI: 10.1002/ana.23542
Reprinted with permission from Wiley-Blackwell.
Originally published in CTS 2011;4:309.
Volume 71, No. 2
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