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NIH support of mouse and model organisms based research

September 9, 2016 | Nat'l Institutes of Health (NIH), Other Funding Agencies

Relative NIH support of mouse and model organisms-based reaearch

With the increasing focus of NIH on translational research and issues of rigor of the underlying scientific premise for proposed studies, many investigators have queried whether this might constitute a shift in NIH funding priorities away from animal studies and/or model organisms (primarily non-vertebrates). In a recently posted article in the NIH Extramural Nexus (August, 2016), Dr. Michael Lauer, Associate Director for Extramural Research and editor of this publication, has provided some relevant information that indirectly addresses this important issue. In an article entitled, “A Look at NIH Support for Model Organisms”, Dr. Lauer summarizes studies of NIH investigators looking at changes in NIH funding with respect to these issues over the last eight years (2008-2015). While there have been some modest changes over time in the number of NIH research applications submitted and research grants awarded over this time, the major take-home lessons remain somewhat invariant, at least until 2016.

What Dr. Lauer reports (in Part 2) is that, during this eight-year time period, there were 267,000 total applications submitted and included in the database, with a little more than 190,000 of these containing the word “mouse”, “mice” or “Mus Musculus” somewhere in the abstract or keywords. This is almost 70% of all applications in which reference to mouse (or equivalents) is made. This is not, of course, a guarantee that the proposed research will involve mice but that at least part of the scientific premise for the research is based upon outcomes of mouse research. In terms of newly funded R01-supported research, here almost half (approximately 2500 out of 5000 new funded R01 awards) make reference to Murine research (which includes primarily mouse and rat-related research). Thus, at least based upon these criteria, the evidence would allow the conclusion that there is still strong support at the NIH for mouse -related research. However, also based upon data during this eight-year funding period, growth of mouse-related research funding relative to overall increases in total number of applicant funding indicates that the former is growing at a slower rate ((0.72% per year relative to all applications submitted than funded applications in general (1.45% per year). How this may change in the future is, of course, anybody’s guess.

The issue that concerns many first-time applicants doing non-vertebrate in vivo research is the extent to which they would be likely to be funded if they are involved in studies involving Drosophila, C. elegans, Zebrafish, Xenopus, yeast and Arabidopsis. While these organisms are extensively studied because of very specific and unique properties that make them amenable for asking specific research questions, the extent to which the NIH “buys into” supporting research in these models appears to be a worry for many applicants. Dr. Lauer also addresses this question in Part 3, again focusing on changes over this eight year period in funding of research for these organisms. While there certainly have been some (again relatively modest) changes, perhaps the more interesting question is what is the actual level of support. During this time period, approximately 2,200 awards (give or take 100) annually were given to investigators pursuing research in these six model organisms. (This is to be contrasted with the data in the previous paragraph in which the primary focus of the discussion was on R01 awards.) Moreover, the data regarding funding rates of success of research applications in these organisms relative to overall rates of funding indicates a higher level at every year (approximately 23% versus 18%). Thus it would appear that there is strong support at the NIH for such research.

In terms of which model organisms attract the greatest degree of funding from the NIH, there are rather significant differences in total awards funded with Drosophila-based and zebrafish-based research being the most well-funded at $250-$300 million annually in 2015. Lesser, but still significant support is provided to investigators pursuing C. elegans and yeast-related research (approximately $150-$200 million annually in 2015). Compared to these organisms, there appears to be relatively modest support for Arabidopsis and Xenopus research with about $20-$50 million in 2015. While there are some relatively minor differences on an annual basis among the research support for these six organisms, in general, each of them does better in terms of success rates than research grant applications overall, which would be expected based upon overall rates of funding success cited above.

Based upon these collective findings, Dr. Lauer concludes that, “These findings, which are based on an automated thesaurus-based text mining system, are consistent with our previously presented findings, and suggest that NIH support for model organism research remains relatively stable with respect to award rates and amount of funding. Shifts in funding among specific model organisms likely reflect changes in the number of applications we received.” We would certainly agree with this conclusion which appears to clearly reflect the relatively broad philosophical perspective that NIH administrative officials and members of NIH Study Sections to the value of fundamental research-generated knowledge and its potential application to the improved prevention, diagnosis and treatment of human disease.