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NIH Funds Nine Centers to Speed Application of Powerful New Research Approach

Roadmap Network Will Produce Chemical Probes to Explore New Targets for Therapies

Press Release

The funding of a network of nine centers across the country that will use high tech screening methods to identify small molecules for use as probes to investigate the diverse functions of cells was announced today by the National Institutes of Health (NIH). The network—funded at approximately $70 million annually over the four-year production phase—is designed to increase the pace of development and use of chemical (small molecule) probes, which have become invaluable tools for exploring biologic processes and for developing new therapies for disease.

"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 Elias A. Zerhouni, M.D., NIH director. "The information generated by this network will be important to developing a greater understanding of biology and its complexity, while hopefully discovering novel approaches to therapies and prevention, especially for rare or neglected diseases."

As genomics research reveals more about the enormous complexity of cell function, new approaches are needed to understand the details. Small molecule probes can be minutely targeted to interact with one site of a cell's chemical machinery, thus providing information on a specific step in a cascade of cell functions. In some cases, small molecules may have activity that gives them potential for eventual therapeutic as well as research use; or, they may identify targets in the cell for the design of future therapies.

The Molecular Libraries Probe Production Centers Network is the second phase of a program begun in 2004 as part of the Molecular Libraries and Imaging Initiative  under NIH's Roadmap for Medical Research. Using assays-laboratory tests used to screen for specific types of probes—solicited by NIH from the research community, the network will screen a library of more than 300,000 small molecules maintained in the program's Molecular Libraries Small Molecule Repository . The repository is located in San Francisco at Biofocus DPI, a drug discovery research company. Data generated by the screening is available to the public through PubChem , a database created and managed by NIH's National Library of Medicine.

The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) and the National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI) will co-administer the network on behalf of NIH. Program funding will transition out of the Roadmap in years five and six.

"Discoveries from genomics and proteomics have given us thousands of new proteins but little understanding of what many of them do in the cell," said Thomas R. Insel, M.D., NIMH director. "This screening effort will identify small molecules that influence these newly discovered proteins, allowing us to understand how many of them function. And for proteins involved in disease states, today's small molecule could be tomorrow's medication."

"This collaborative effort will give academic and government researchers in the global research community robust chemical tools to understand the cellular mechanisms of disease and a much more vigorous way to identify useful biological targets," said NHGRI Acting Director, Alan E. Guttmacher, M.D.

The nine institutions funded as part of the network are:

Comprehensive Centers:

  • The Burnham Center for Chemical Genomics, La Jolla, Calif.; John Reed, Principal Investigator
  • Broad Institute Comprehensive Screening Center, Cambridge, Mass.; Stuart Schreiber, Principal Investigator
  • National Institutes of Health Chemical Genomics Center, Bethesda, Md.; Christopher Austin, Principal Investigator
  • The Comprehensive Center for Chemical Probe Discovery and Optimization at the Scripps Research Institute, La Jolla, Calif.; Hugh Rosen, Principal Investigator

Specialized Screening Centers:

  • Johns Hopkins Ion Channel Center, Baltimore; Min Li, Principal Investigator
  • Southern Research Specialized Biocontainment Screening Center, Birmingham, Ala.; Colleen Jonsson, Principal Investigator
  • University of New Mexico Center for Molecular Discovery, Albuquerque, N.M.; Larry Sklar, Principal Investigator

Specialized Chemistry Centers:

  • University of Kansas Specialized Chemistry Center, Lawrence, Kan.; Jeffrey Aube, Principal Investigator
  • The Vanderbilt Specialized Chemistry Center for Accelerated Probe Development, Nashville, Tenn.; Craig Lindsley, Principal Investigator

NHGRI led the Human Genome Project for the NIH. Additional information about NHGRI can be f ound at its Web site, http://www.genome.gov .

The NIH Roadmap for Medical Research, launched in 2004, is a series of initiatives designed to address fundamental knowledge gaps, develop transformative tools and technologies, and/or foster innovative approaches to complex problems. Funded through the NIH Common Fund, these programs cut across the missions of individual NIH Institutes and Centers (ICs) and are intended to accelerate the translation of research to improvements in public health. The Office of Portfolio Analysis and Strategic Initiatives, in collaboration with all NIH ICs, oversees programs funded by the Common Fund. Additional information about the NIH Roadmap and Common Fund can be found at www.nihroadmap.nih.gov .

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About the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH): The mission of the NIMH is to transform the understanding and treatment of mental illnesses through basic and clinical research, paving the way for prevention, recovery and cure. For more information, visit the NIMH website.

About the National Institutes of Health (NIH): NIH, the nation's medical research agency, includes 27 Institutes and Centers and is a component of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. NIH is the primary federal agency conducting and supporting basic, clinical, and translational medical research, and is investigating the causes, treatments, and cures for both common and rare diseases. For more information about NIH and its programs, visit the NIH website .