From the Deputy Director for Intramural Research

Then and Now

Michael Gottesman

This issue of the Catalyst includes an article about the renovation of Building 3 and reminiscences about the glory that was ours in the early 1950s when giants roamed the halls of NIH, especially Building 3. (Not to be outdone, Building 2 was no slouch either, but that is for another essay.)

You can read about the amazing concentration of future National Academy of Science members and Nobel laureates who rubbed shoulders there, and you might rightly ask, where are those shoulders to rub now? Even though things have changed, I would argue that the NIH intramural research program has retained its disproportionate impact on biomedical research.

The era of NIH support of research in universities and other extramural sites was just beginning in the 1950s—about 50 percent of the NIH budget was spent on intramural research then. So the top scientists in the world were attracted to NIH, where there were stable support for research, outstanding modern facilities and equipment, and colleagues who were interactive and interested in each other’s work. Furthermore, NIH was a place where spouses could find jobs, and so couples—such as the Stadtmans (Thressa and Earl), the Tabors (Herbert Tabor and Celia White Tabor), and Jack Orloff and Martha Vaughan—were recruited together, adding substantially to the quality and gender diversity of the science here.

Today, the intramural budget is approximately 10 percent of the overall NIH budget. Yet intramural NIH remains at the forefront of biomedical research: 50 investigators are members of the National Academy of Sciences; 50 are members of the Institute of Medicine; and the intramural program is consistently recognized for its cutting-edge research through awards, its more than 6,000 publications per year, and its high citation rates.

The same formula that brought luminaries to the NIH 60 years ago works to sustain this high productivity and impact today: long-term stable support, talented colleagues, and state-of-the-art resources. The National Human Genome Research Institute and the new NIH Center for Acceleration of Translational Science exemplify how NIH has kept ahead of the curve in developing technology that moves research, not incrementally, but in quantum jumps.

But we don’t rest on our laurels. Three years ago the scientific directors initiated a program to recruit the most outstanding and diverse tenure-track investigators to NIH. We are using a global search process named after Earl Stadtman, one of Building 3’s biochemical superstars and a mentor to many of the stars who came to the NIH to work with him. This search has so far identified nearly two-dozen highly creative and interactive scientists who will surely be future members of the National Academies and award winners.

In addition, in 2011 intramural scientists garnered three of the 20 Presidential Early Career Awards in Science and Engineering (PECASE); a fourth PECASE awardee has been recruited to NIH.

Finally, let me mention the critical role that the NIH Clinical Center (CC) has played in the pre-eminence of the NIH intramural research program. Since the CC’s construction was completed in 1954, it has been an essential site for long-term natural history studies as well as early-phase and first-in-human clinical trials.

Recognized in 2011 by a distinguished Lasker-Bloomberg Public Service Award, the CC’s medical milestones include the development of chemotherapy for cancer; the first use of an immunotoxin to treat a malignancy; identification of genes that cause kidney cancer, leading to the development of six new treatments; the demonstration that lithium helps depression; the first gene therapy; the first treatment of AIDS (with zidovudine); and the development of tests to detect AIDS and HIV and hepatitis viruses in blood, which led to a safer blood supply.

The recent request for applications for joint intramural-extramural collaborative clinical research (see article) will bring a new dimension and new talent to the CC, as will our partnership with the Lasker Foundation, the NIH-Lasker Clinical Research Scholars program (http://www.nih.gov/science/laskerscholar). The Lasker program seeks to recruit the best and brightest new clinical researchers to tenure-track positions at the NIH with the promise of long-term support either at the NIH or via an extramural grant mechanism after completion of the tenure track.