A Medical Device Daily

The National Institutes of Health Roadmap for Medical Research will fund nine interdisciplinary research consortia as a means of integrating aspects of different disciplines to address health challenges that have been resistant to traditional research approaches. The funding of these consortia represents a fundamental change in both the culture within which biomedical and behavioral research is conducted and the culture within the NIH where research projects are normally managed by an individual institute or center (IC), it said.

The consortia will be funded at a level of $210 million over five years. Each consortium has an overall principal investigator that is responsible for coordinating the efforts of the individual grant components.

“The Interdisciplinary Research programs within the roadmap embody a central goal of the roadmap — to help transform the way research is conducted,” said NIH Director Elias Zerhouni, MD. “These programs are designed to encourage and enable change in academic research culture to make interdisciplinary research easier to conduct for scientists who wish to collaborate in unconventional ways.”

As opposed to multidisciplinary research, which involves teams of scientists approaching a problem from their own discipline, interdisciplinary research integrates elements of a wide range of disciplines, often including basic research, clinical research, behavioral biology, and social sciences so that all of the scientists approach the problem in a new way. The members of interdisciplinary teams learn from each other to produce new approaches to a problem that would not be possible through any of the single disciplines.

Typically, this process begins with team members first learning the language of each other’s discipline, as well as the assumptions, limits, and valid uses of those disciplines’ theoretical and experimental approaches. Experiments are then designed in ways that cut across disciplines, with, for example, an experiment based in one discipline producing data that can be correlated — or otherwise connected to — data generated in experiments based in another discipline. The common understanding by the team of the disciplines involved assures that this tight linkage across the disciplines is valid.

These consortia are expected to not only develop new ways to think about challenging biomedical problems, but will provide a stimulus for academic research culture change such that interdisciplinary research becomes the norm, the NIH said. The consortia address directly several current barriers to interdisciplinary research. The strategies for accomplishing this include: (1) dissolving departmental boundaries within institutions; (2) providing recognition of team leadership within the projects; (3) cross-training students in multiple disciplines; and, (4) changing the NIH approach to interdisciplinary research administration.

The consortia consist of multiple research projects with multiple principal investigators, core research support facilities, training, career development, and education components. Those components will be divided among several ICs for programmatic oversight. To maintain the interdisciplinary research program as a whole, the grants will remain linked electronically through unique identifiers, and the National Center for Research Resources (NCRR) and the Office of Portfolio Analysis and Strategic Initiatives will oversee the entire program.

The missions of the consortia range broadly from deciphering the basis of neuropsychiatric disorders, to developing new approaches to drug discovery and targeted gene therapy, to preserving fertility in women with cancer, to understanding the fundamentals of the aging process, to a coordinated and systematic approach to regenerative medicine and obesity, to probing the relationship between self-control and addictive behavior, and to developing targeted molecular therapies for neurodegenerative disorders.

The consortia will integrate numerous disciplines including basic biological sciences, genomics, proteomics, bioinformatics, biostatistics, biophysics, chemistry, gene therapy, stem cell biology, mechanical and tissue engineering, reproductive endocrinology, neurology, behavioral research, and the social sciences.