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Nobel 2006: Award highlights need for NIH funding

BY TRACIE WHITE

The story began 20 years ago when Andrew Fire, PhD, first submitted a grant to the National Institutes of Health to fund his research on nematodes. "I had no idea where it would lead to," Fire said Oct. 3 at a news conference, where he recounted how that research on roundworms ultimately led to a Nobel Prize for him and his colleague Craig Mello, PhD, and a burst of new research throughout the world.

"I don't know if that grant would have been funded now," Fire said. "But they agreed the research was worth following up on." And the rest, as they say, is history.

Upon winning the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, Fire, professor of pathology and of genetics, quickly emphasized how the discovery of the mechanism that lets the body turn off genes within a cell depended on public funds—and how such funding for basic science today was now on shakier ground.

"We did what we could based on the support, as it turns out, of the American people," Fire said. "Because most of what goes on in research labs that is really unbiased research is funded by public institutions like the NIH."

Fire stressed the importance of continued NIH support of basic science at a time when competition grows ever fiercer among researchers for a smaller funding pot. Funding for the NIH was cut this year for the first time in more than 30 years and the administration's budget proposal for next year would freeze the NIH budget at that level.

Philip Pizzo, MD, dean of the School of Medicine, sat beside Fire at the news conference, nodding in agreement. "At a time when our country in some ways is questioning the integrity of science and the NIH is struggling to support work that is very meritorious, this is incredible evidence of the extraordinary applications of basic science," Pizzo said.

The NIH's National Institute of General Medical Sciences began supporting the work of Fire in 1987 and Mello in 1999. Over the years, NIGMS has provided nearly $8.5 million to support the two scientists. "This honor underscores the fundamental role that basic research plays in advancing our understanding of health," said Jeremy Berg, PhD, NIGMS director.