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Testimony on National Center for Research Resources' FY 1998 Budget by Dr. Judith L. Vaitukaitis
Director, National Center for Research Resources
National Institutes of Health
Accompanied by
Dr. Louise E. Ramm, Deputy Director, NCRR
Dr. Dov Jaron, Associate Director for Biomedical Technology, NCRR
Ms. Anne E. Summers, Budget Officer, NCRR
Dr. Harold Varmus, Director, NIH
Mr. Dennis P. Williams, Deputy Assistant Secretary, Budget, DHHS
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services

Before the House Appropriations Committee, Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, Education and Related Agencies
March 6, 1997

Mr. Chairman and Members of the Committee:

It is a pleasure to appear before you today to discuss the activities and accomplishments of the National Center for Research Resources. NCRR has a unique responsibility for biomedical research infrastructure at the National Institutes of Health. That infrastructure can be compared to a great locomotive that transports passengers--in this case scientists who explore disease and its remedies--toward ever-changing destinations. Investigators depend on NCRR to create, develop, and provide the "engine" or infrastructure of modern science to keep science moving forward.

Infrastructure takes many forms--from sophisticated instrumentation and technologies, clinical research environments, and animal research models of human disease, to construction and human resource-building activities. Most of NCRR's budget supports center grants that underwrite research infrastructure at academic medical centers and universities throughout the nation. Those centers provide specially adapted facilities, instrumentation, and expertise to biomedical investigators on a local, regional or national basis. NCRR-supported research facilities and repositories serve more than 10,000 investigators nationwide.

Recent findings at NCRR-funded biomedical technology centers have great dollar-saving potential. For example, the first magnetic resonance images using hyperpolarized gas in living systems have been developed. This technology produces a signal 100 to 10,000 times more powerful than traditional MRI, with no added cost to the MRI system and only a moderate cost for polarized gas.

NCRR is a key player in new drug discovery, design, development, and testing as well. For example, cytomegalovirus (CMV) infects up to 70 percent of the U.S. population and can cause life-threatening infections in immunosuppressed individuals. Scientists using an NCRR-funded biomedical technology resource at Cornell University have succeeded in visualizing the 3-D structure of cytomegalovirus' protease enzyme required for CMV replication, thereby providing a new target for antiviral drug design.

In another study, scientists recently synthesized a peptide from the sea snail Conus magnus for use as a potential pain-reducing drug for cancer and AIDS patients. NCRR-supported Shared Instrumentation Grants played a prominent role in analyzing the toxins and an NCRR-supported mass spectrometry resource in San Diego characterized the structures of conotoxins. Clinical trials are underway at General Clinical Research Centers to assess the effectiveness of these potential pain-reducing drugs. With more than 500 species of sea snails, the Conus family has enormous potential for drug discovery.

Clinical investigations at NCRR-supported General Clinical Research Centers and through the Clinical Research Initiative at several minority medical schools advance our knowledge of how to prevent, diagnose and treat serious health problems. For example, investigators at a Yale University GCRC used a noninvasive imaging technique, known as single photon emission computerized tomography, to provide additional proof that increased transmission of the neurotransmitter dopamine causes the symptoms of schizophrenia.

Investigators at the University of Utah GCRC recently identified a gene that, with others, controls the regularity of a person's heartbeat. By detecting individuals who have a mutated form of this gene, physicians can prescribe medications that protect against cardiac arrhythmias, which cause a staggering death toll each year, even among young, apparently healthy people.

A step toward better treatment of a deadly disease took place at a GCRC at the University of Connecticut. There, melanoma patients were immunized with cytolytic T lymphocytes (CTLs), an approach known to attack melanoma cells at the vaccination and distant tumor sites. In this study, investigators induced a peptide-specific CTL response against the melanoma.

In FY 1996, the network of GCRCs hosted 7,835 investigators who carried out 5,604 research projects--both numbers are the greatest in the program's history. Many GCRC sites, where managed care has heavily penetrated, have become oases for patient-oriented research. For the same reason, several academic medical centers which currently do not have GCRCs are actively pursuing competing for a center for their faculty to conduct patient-oriented research.

To address the health issues which disproportionately affect under served populations, NCRR launched the Clinical Research Initiative (CRI) within selected Research Centers in Minority Institutions (RCMI)-supported institutions to enhance their clinical research infrastructure. The RCMI program enhances the capacity of minority colleges and universities that offer doctorates in health or health-related sciences to conduct health-related research. The CRI provides the resources for patient-oriented research so that investigators at the RCMI sites can more effectively compete for NIH clinical research funding.

Whether investigating cancer or an emerging infectious disease, researchers also need a wide range of animal and other models. Almost half of all NIH-funded grants include animal-based research. Often research is most effectively advanced by a combination of model systems rather than by reliance on only a few. Successful new research models include a rhesus monkey model for Lyme disease, as well as colonies of aged monkeys for investigations of the neurobiology and physiology of aging and Alzheimer's disease.

Centralized shared resources for genetically-altered animals and other organisms are of great interest to the scientific community because they provide unique models with specific genetic defects with which to determine gene function. An economical research model is the zebrafish. This tiny creature will allow study of genetic defects that are comparable to genetic defects in humans. Best of all, this model is economical--the cost of supporting 1,700 zebrafish equals that of supporting 17 mice! NCRR supports a host of other genetic stock centers, including those for the fruit fly, yeast, and round worm as well as for induced mutant resources for mice.

NCRR also supports human resource development through two science education programs. The Science Education Partnership Award (SEPA) program encourages scientists to work with educators and other organizations to improve student and public understanding of science and promote interest in scientific careers. For example, BrainLink, a SEPA project at Baylor College of Medicine, communicates the fun and excitement of "doing" science and promotes healthy behaviors for youngsters in elementary and middle schools. NCRR also supports a Minority Initiative for K-12 Teachers and High School Students. That program's purpose is to ensure that an adequate supply of under-represented groups enters the career pipeline for biomedical research and the health professions.

A primary NCRR objective has been to promote accessibility to novel and essential research tools and to support cutting-edge technologies. Breakthroughs in basic engineering and physics can provide the research tools for health-based research. NCRR programs will continue to foster that transition in FY 1998. For example, the NCRR will develop and coordinate a new initiative that will focus on understanding the structure and function of the brain and its dynamic changes with time, the fourth dimension. To attain these goals, further development of new imaging modalities as well as new tools for neurosimulation and modeling are needed. Studies of the brain microvasculature, mechanisms of cell death and studies to map concentrations of specific neurotransmitters in the brain will lead to improved knowledge about neurodegenerative diseases such as Parkinson's and Alzheimer's diseases.

Another initiative will encourage development of innovative software, algorithms, and techniques for use with high performance computers and telecommunication facilities to increase the number of biomedical technology resources and their applications that can be remotely accessed by investigators across the country over the next generation of the Internet, which will be 1,000 times faster than the current Internet. Magnetic resonance imaging resources and other modeling resources, essential for structural biology, are candidates for this approach.

Another initiative will extend development of gene vectors for human diseases through the National Gene Vector Laboratories. Gene vectors will be generated for a variety of diseases, including rheumatoid arthritis, immunologic disorders, vascular diseases, AIDS, metabolic diseases and cancers. The Regional Primate Research Centers (RPRCs) and the network of GCRCs will host studies designed to define innovative approaches to human gene therapy. In addition, both the GCRCs and RPRCs will host studies to define the molecular basis for disease.

In conjunction with the regional primate research centers, investigators will focus on the development of novel vaccines for AIDS. Studies that may pave the way for developing vaccines against HIV in humans were recently reported by scientists at the NCRR-supported New England Regional Primate Research Center. Investigations with rhesus monkeys showed that vaccine protection against intravenous challenge with simian immunodeficiency virus (SIV), similar to its human counterpart, could be attained with live attenuated vaccine from which certain viral genes had been deleted. These and other related efforts will be extended to help identify an effective vaccine for HIV.

In the future, as in the past, it is important for NCRR to set priorities and to anticipate investigators' needs to assure that appropriate research facilities and resources are in place when investigators need them. Accordingly, this year NCRR will update its strategic plan, first developed in 1994, and will again seek input from its many constituencies in the scientific community. Nearly all the actions recommended in the 1994 plan have been implemented.

Continued improvement of research "engines"--from technologies to clinical environments, research models, construction, and human resource development--will allow NCRR to pull many "cars" and ensure a cost-effective biomedical research enterprise that can meet both scientific and economic demands.

Mr. Chairman, the FY 1998 President's Budget Request for NCRR is $333,868,000. I would be pleased to answer any questions you may have.

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