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Overview

The National Institute of General Medical Sciences (NIGMS) is part of the National Institutes of Health and primarily supports research that lays the foundation for advances in disease diagnosis, treatment, and prevention. The Institute's research training programs help provide the next generation of scientists.

Each year, NIGMS-supported scientists make many advances in understanding fundamental life processes. In the course of answering basic research questions, these investigators increase our knowledge about the mechanisms and pathways involved in certain diseases. Institute grantees also develop important new tools and techniques, some of which have medical applications. In recognition of the significance of their work, a number of NIGMS grantees have received the Nobel Prize and other high scientific honors.

NIGMS is organized into divisions and a center that support research and research training in a range of scientific fields. One division has the specific mission of increasing the number of biomedical and behavioral scientists who are members of underrepresented minority groups.

NIGMS was established in 1962. In fiscal year 2009, the Institute’s budget is $1.9 billion. The vast majority of this money funds grants to scientists at universities, medical schools, hospitals, and other research institutions throughout the country. At any given time, NIGMS supports approximately 4,500 research grants—about 10% of the grants funded by NIH as a whole. NIGMS also supports approximately 25% of the trainees who receive assistance from NIH.

NIGMS produces a number of free science education booklets on topics such as cell biology, genetics, chemistry, pharmacology, structural biology, and computational biology. The Institute also produces the magazine Findings, which showcases diverse scientists who do cutting-edge research and lead interesting lives. To order NIGMS publications, visit http://publications.nigms.nih.gov/order.

Research and Research Training Funding

NIGMS places great emphasis on supporting investigator-initiated research grants. It funds a limited number of research center grants in selected fields, including structural genomics, trauma and burn research, and systems biology. In addition, NIGMS supports several important scientific resources, including the NIGMS Human Genetic Cell Repository and the Protein Data Bank.

In recent years, NIGMS has launched initiatives in structural genomics (the Protein Structure Initiative), pharmacogenetics, and computational modeling of infectious disease outbreaks. The Institute also has several "glue grants" that promote the collaborative approaches increasingly needed to solve complex problems in biomedical science. NIGMS participates in the NIH Roadmap for Medical Research, a series of far-reaching initiatives designed to transform the nation’s medical research capabilities and speed the movement of research discoveries from the bench to the bedside.

NIGMS research training programs recognize the interdisciplinary nature of biomedical research today and stress approaches that cut across disciplinary and departmental lines. Such experience prepares trainees to pursue creative research careers in a wide variety of areas.

Certain NIGMS training programs address areas in which there are particularly compelling needs. One of these, the Medical Scientist Training Program, produces investigators who hold the combined M.D.-Ph.D. degree and are well trained in both basic science and clinical research. Other programs train scientists to conduct research in rapidly growing areas like biotechnology and at the interfaces between fields such as chemistry and biology and behavioral and biomedical sciences.

NIGMS also has a Pharmacology Research Associate Program, in which postdoctoral scientists receive training in pharmacology in laboratories at the NIH or Food and Drug Administration.

Research Advances

Among the advances that scientists have made with NIGMS support are:

  • Discovering a gene-silencing process called RNA interference, or RNAi, that is both a powerful research tool and a promising new approach for treating diseases. This work won the 2006 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine.
  • Reprogramming ordinary skin cells to look and act, in most regards, like human embryonic stem cells. This pioneering accomplishment has allowed the experimental creation of disease-specific cells and cells that can make products like insulin.
  • Revealing how a protein's shape affects its function, which plays a key role in health and disease and also informs the design of new drugs. The 2006 Nobel Prize in chemistry honored structural studies that revealed how DNA is copied into RNA.
  • Increasing survival from burn injury, in part by improving methods of wound care, nutrition, and infection control.
  • Explaining how genes affect the way a person responds to drugs, including those to treat cancer and prevent blood clots.
  • Shedding light on the critical functions of carbohydrates, sugar molecules found on all living cells that are vital to fertilization, inflammation, blood clotting, and viral infection. A grantee working in this area recently identified the contaminant in heparin that caused serious adverse reactions in humans.
  • Modeling infectious disease outbreaks and the impact of interventions through computer simulations to provide valuable information to public health policymakers.
  • Developing new methods to look inside cells and other living systems, including the glowing markers that won the 2008 Nobel Prize in chemistry. These approaches have advanced what we know about basic life processes in a range of organisms.
  • For more advances, see 40 Years of Discovery: From Molecules to Medicines.

Program Descriptions and Recent Accomplishments

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Cell Biology and Biophysics

The Division of Cell Biology and Biophysics (CBB) fosters the study of cells and their components. Physics- and chemistry-based technological advances, driven by new types of microscopy, structural biology tools, and many other novel imaging techniques, have deepened understanding of life at the level of molecules and atoms. This basic research promotes the development of precise, targeted therapies and diagnostics for a range of diseases.

In FY 2008, the division's Protein Structure Initiative (PSI) continued to make protein structure determination faster, easier, and cheaper. The PSI Knowledgebase and Materials Repository are making PSI products and results more readily available and useful to the broad scientific community. Significant progress also occurred in the field of optical imaging, improving researchers’ ability to study cellular structures and better understand the basic functions of normal and diseased cells.

Genetics and Developmental Biology

The mission of the Division of Genetics and Developmental Biology (GDB) is to promote basic research that aims to reveal fundamental mechanisms of inheritance and development. This research underlies more targeted projects supported by other NIH components. Much of GDB’s investigator-initiated research is performed in model organisms, an approach that continues to deepen understanding of common diseases and diverse behaviors.

In FY 2008, GDB increased its support for research on the basic biology of stem cells by funding three new program project grants. Furthermore, to rapidly exploit the potential of induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells derived from non-embryonic cells, GDB created an opportunity for NIGMS grantees to receive supplemental funding to extend their ongoing projects by using iPS cells as models to study differentiation and development.

Pharmacology, Physiology, and Biological Chemistry

The mission of the Division of Pharmacology, Physiology, and Biological Chemistry (PPBC) is to support fundamental research in chemistry, biochemistry, pharmacology, and physiology that contributes to understanding human biology in health and disease and that generates knowledge for new diagnostics and therapeutics. The division also funds research that explores certain clinical issues, including physiological responses to traumatic injury and burns, wound healing, and anesthesia.

In FY 2008, PPBC led the creation of the Global Alliance for Pharmacogenomics, a partnership between NIH and the Center for Genomic Medicine in Japan. U.S. scientists joining the global initiative are members of the NIH Pharmacogenetics Research Network, a PPBC-led consortium of research groups that study how genes affect an individual’s response to medicines. Also in FY 2008, PPBC continued its support of critical care medicine by renewing a large-scale, team science effort to solve the life-threatening problem of inflammation following major trauma or burn injury.

Bioinformatics and Computational Biology

The Center for Bioinformatics and Computational Biology (CBCB) supports research that applies expertise from mathematics, statistics, computer science, engineering, and physics to problems in biomedicine. CBCB emphasizes integrated, systems approaches that pair computational studies with laboratory-based investigations. Other projects create virtual laboratories that address questions that are difficult to tackle in the laboratory. CBCB also encourages the development of tools and techniques to acquire, store, analyze, and visualize data.

In FY 2008, CBCB funded a new National Center for Systems Biology to advance the study of the complexity of biology and to train more scientists in this emerging field. This national effort, launched in 2002 and now totaling 10 centers, will broaden and deepen understanding of the interplay between cells, tissues, and organisms.

Minority Opportunities in Research

The mission of the Division of Minority Opportunities in Research (MORE) is to increase the number of underrepresented minorities performing biomedical and behavioral research. The division provides support at the undergraduate, graduate, postdoctoral, and faculty levels and also funds developmental activities that enhance the research environment at minority-serving institutions.

Among the divisions’s innovations is a fellowship that includes mentored teaching at a minority-serving institution. Fellows gain valuable classroom experience, present the latest scientific information, serve as role models for students, and increase linkages between research-intensive and minority-serving institutions. Another activity supports studies of interventions that promote interest in research careers.

Research Training

In addition to training Ph.D. and M.D.-Ph.D. students in 12 broad-based, multidisciplinary areas, this program offers postdoctoral training in basic, translational, and clinical research. NIGMS also supports the training of students and fellows working in individual-investigator laboratories as well as mentored career development awards in six clinically related areas.

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