The senate appropriations bill released on September 20, 2011 contained a modest $190 million cut in funding for the National Institutes of Health (NIH), but also contained language creating the National Center for Advancing Translational Research (NCATS), a branch of the NIH devoted to translating basic science into treatment and cures for diseases. The purpose of the new center is not to develop new therapeutics, but to develop innovative tools and methods for drug development that will accelerate the development of medical products. In this way, NCATS will complement, and not compete with, the work of the private sector and other NIH translational science efforts.
In addition, the bill contained $20 million in funding for a program within NCATS called the Cures Acceleration Network (CAN). The CAN will provide grants to speed the application of discoveries that have shown promise in the laboratory but are not advanced enough to have attracted private-sector funding.
As a starter, the NIH announced a collaboration between FDA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and the NIH that would fall under the auspices of NCATS. The project is to develop a chip loaded with cells that reflect human biology that can be used to screen for drug toxicity. In the announcement, NIH director Francis S. Collins says, “Drug toxicity is one of the most common reasons why promising compounds fail. We need to know which ones are safe and effective much earlier on in the process. This is an unprecedented opportunity to speed development of effective therapies, while saving time and money.” The NIH plans to commit up to $70 million over the next five years to fund the project, with a comparable amount coming from DARPA. The two agencies will run separate programs but will work together to assure maximum efficiencies, and will facilitate communication between researchers and FDA to advance the goals of both programs.
The creation of a center such as NCATS is an interesting attempt to bridge the gap between basic research and drug development. Because the focus of NCATS will be on tools rather than discovery, there’s still a hole left by the withdrawal of large pharmaceutical companies from large-scale basic research efforts. How this hole will be filled, whether by universities or by private-public partnerships, remains to be seen.