World and Nation

NIH Funds Local Mass. Teams For Daring Scientific Research

Boston researchers are about to begin a bold experiment that, if it works, could help solve the organ shortage and provide other replacement parts for worn-out humans: They will try to grow heart valves, and parts of a pancreas and a tooth, from scratch in the lab.

A second local group hopes to transform the drug discovery process, taking advantage of a flood of genes being linked to human diseases to rapidly identify potential treatments for those ailments.

The National Institutes of Health plans to announce today that it will fund both of these projects as part of a $483 million initiative to support daring, difficult research that has the potential to solve intractable medical problems and transform patient care. Nine teams nationwide will each get $21 million to $25 million in this round of funding.

“This is knock-your-socks off science,” said Dr. Alan Krensky, director of the NIH office of portfolio analysis and strategic initiatives, which is funding the projects.

The agency, the major funder of biomedical research in the United States, wants to bring together scientists from different fields to solve problems that have been resistant to traditional approaches, Krensky said. The organ project, for example, includes a cardiac surgeon and two mathematicians, computer specialists, and tissue engineers.

The NIH traditionally awards most research grants — typically about $250,000 each — to individual doctors and scientists whose work has a high likelihood of success. But hoping to turn a new page on how research is done, the agency has set aside 1.7 percent of its budget in a sort of venture capital fund for large, multidisciplinary projects that are riskier but have a huge potential payoff. Among the other projects, researchers in Chicago will try to develop novel ways to preserve the fertility of women undergoing cancer treatment, and scientists at Yale University will study the connection between stress, self-control, and addiction.

The initiative is occurring, however, at a time when scientists are concerned about funding for research. The NIH budget, about $29 billion this year, doubled between 1998 and 2003 but has not kept pace with inflation since then, said David Moore, senior associate vice president for governmental relations for the American Association of Medical Colleges.