A Diagnostics & Imaging Week

The National Center for Research Resources (NCRR), a part of the National Institutes of Health, said it would provide up to an estimated $11 million over the next five years to create two new Biomedical Technology Research Centers (BTRCs) that will provide researchers nationwide with access to specialized research tools, training and the latest equipment.

One center will develop imaging techniques designed specifically to better diagnose and treat diseases, such as Alzheimer's, where the nervous system progressively deteriorates. A second center will create software for identifying and analyzing sets of interacting proteins that are important in a wide range of diseases, such as cancer.

According to the NCRR, each center creates "critical and often unique technology" to apply to a broad range of basic, clinical and translational research. Serving as test beds for solving complex biomedical research problems, BTRC research projects combine the expertise of multidisciplinary technical and biomedical experts both within the center and through collaborative partnerships.

These efforts result in "innovative solutions to today's health challenges, which are then actively disseminated to promote rapid adoption and achieve the broadest possible impact," the agency said.

The new centers are being established at the Northern California Institute for Research and Education (San Francisco) and at the University of California, San Diego.

The Northern California Institute for Research and Education will receive a five-year award up to an estimated $6.04 million to develop a center for MRI of neurodegenerative disorders. This BTRC will develop "innovative and improved" MRI techniques for clinicians to better understand, detect, diagnose, and treat diseases, such as Alzheimer's, Parkinson's and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig's disease, the NCRR said.

A "vital new resource for a rapidly aging population," the new center represents a continued collaborative effort among MRI physicists, computer scientists, and clinical investigators to provide the scientific community with a centralized source for the latest imaging tools, service, and training focused solely on neurodegenerative diseases, the NCRR said.

The advanced techniques developed at the new center will offer researchers and clinicians improved image clarity, more reliable and precise methods for capturing anatomical data, more efficient and accurate reconstruction methods, and improved image-processing capabilities.

Through a second BTRC award to the University of California, San Diego, totaling up to an estimated $4.94 million over five years, NCRR will support a new center for computational mass spectrometry that will serve as an international resource in proteomics, enabling more research activities, investigation into unexplored areas of computational proteomics, and support of collaborative research efforts.

The goal of a proteomics experiment is often to identify thousands of proteins present in a complex biological sample, and detect differences in the amounts or structures of these proteins when samples are compared, for example a tumor vs. normal tissue. Looking at these differences and how they relate to one another can help shed light on the causes or progression of a disease and how drugs might be able to treat the disease, according to the NCRR.

The complex data generated in these experiments require sophisticated computational tools for interpretation. These tools have lagged behind the rapid evolution of new analytical technologies for proteomics. This new center will bring creative mathematical approaches to mass spectrometry and will build a new generation of reliable open-access software tools that will catalyze exchange and collaboration among experimental and computational researchers in proteomics, furthering advances in this critical field of research. The center will also focus on training the scientific community in the use of the technologies it develops.

These new awards increase the number of BTRCs to 52. They are organized into five broad technology areas: imaging, informatics, optical and laser technology, technology for structural biology and technology for systems biology.

Researchers nationwide can access a broad range of support and services at these centers, the NCRR noted. Potential interactions include long-term collaboration, routine analysis and consultation. They also provide hands-on laboratory training, short courses, workshops and online resources.

In other grant news, The Institute for Health Technology Studies (InHealth; Washington) has awarded $1.7 million in grants over the next two years to researchers at Johns Hopkins University (Baltimore), Northwestern University (Evanston, Illinois), Medical College of Georgia (Augusta), Tufts University (Medford, Massachusetts) and the University of Houston.

The funding will allow researchers to examine the economic and social impact of diagnostic and therapeutic medical devices on treating diseases and chronic medical conditions, InHealth said.

Those researchers will explore the cost-benefit effects of insulin pumps, hearing aids, in-vitro diagnostics, genomic diagnostics for personalized medicine and devices used to treat sleep apnea. The new funding continues InHealth's mission of supporting objective research that evaluates the value and social and economic impact of medical technology. It comes at a time when rising health care costs, the aging "baby boomer" generation and increasing numbers of uninsured patients magnify critical issues related to health policy, the organization noted.

"Health issues reduce the quality of life for millions of Americans while incurring a heavy economic burden on patients and the health care system," said InHealth Executive Director Martyn Howgill. "Medical technology plays a pivotal role in the diagnosis and treatment of injury and disease – and while the intuitive evidence clearly suggests that medical technology benefits the patient, there's little objective evidence of its value to policy makers and regulators."

Howgill said that InHealth is working to build evidence about the contributions of technology to patients and society and to make sure that the information is within reach of policy makers and health leaders.

This is the third round of grants awarded since InHealth began funding research in 2005. To date, InHealth has allocated more than $4 million toward research grants. Current studies that have appeared or await publication in peer-reviewed journals focus on total hip and knee replacements, cardiac stents, implantable defibrillators, neonatal care and diagnostic imaging. Findings from this new round of research are expected in 2009 and 2010, InHealth said.

Grant details are as follows:

Johns Hopkins was awarded a one-year grant of $200,000 to study the economic value of hearing aids and associated technologies.

Researchers at the Medical College of Georgia were awarded a $491,344, two-year grant to study the impact of insulin pumps on the social, cultural and economic aspects of patient and family life.

Researchers John Linehan, PhD, professor of Medicine and Bioengineering at Northwestern University, and Jan Pietzsch, PhD, professor in Stanford University's Department of Management Science and Engineering, will apply a one year, $191,231 grant to deliver new insights about the role of medical technology in diagnosing and treating obstructive sleep apnea.

Researchers at Tufts University will apply the two-year, $400,000 grant to examine the method by which in vitro diagnostic technology's value is measured from several angles, which include exploring published cost-analyses and conducting a survey to gauge preferences for diagnostic testing. The study aims to be the most comprehensive analysis of cost-effectiveness to date.

A research team at the University of Houston was awarded a $398,000, two-year grant to analyze the willingness of patients from different socio-economic backgrounds to adopt and use genomic devices for tailoring drug-prescription, including the willingness to pay for novel genomic diagnostics.