$280 million to find chemical probes for tracking cellular processes

The US National Institutes of Health (NIH) will spend $280 million (?160 million) developing a national network across nine academic institutes to find new drug leads or chemical probes to track molecules in cells. The four-year programme, announced on 2 September, will use high-throughput screening - a tool that to date has largely been used by drug firms - to hunt for promising compounds in its library of over 300,000 small molecules.

’This network marks a new era in academic and government research, as NIH-funded scientists will have access to the tools for rapidly screening hundreds of thousands of small molecules against many novel biological assays at lower costs than previously possible,’ said the agency’s director, Elias Zerhouni.

Known as the Molecular Libraries Probe Production Centers Network, the NIH programme is the second phase of a larger Molecular Libraries and Imaging Initiative effort begun in 2004. All data from the effort will be made publicly available through PubChem, the agency’s free online database of chemical molecules.

The network includes centres based at the Burnham Institute and the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, California, the Broad Institute in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, and the University of Kansas in Lawrence. The NIH Chemical Genomics Center in Bethesda, Maryland, the Southern Research Institute in Birmingham, Alabama, and the universities of Kansas and New Mexico have also won funding under the scheme.

Although there is widespread support for the goals of the new NIH programme, it remains somewhat controversial. Big targeted grants are seen to compete with individual investigator-initiated grants - a particular concern during the current period of tight NIH budgets.

’This initiative is being heard as a drug discovery effort, even though it is clearly intended to be much wider than that,’ says Kip Guy, chairman of chemical biology and therapeutics at St. Judes Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee, US. ’There is a feeling that this is merely technical, or less novel, than some other approaches.’

Rebecca Trager, US correspondent for Research Day USA

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