Drug companies have struggled to find new treatments even as more than 1 million Americans die from heart disease and cancer combined each year. Now a newly funded national center aims to turn science into medical innovations for beating back those leading causes of death.

 

The National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences was officially endowed with $575 million in the 2012 national budget passed by Congress and signed into law by President Obama on Dec. 23. The center is expected to help the National Institutes of Health (NIH) close the gap between creating scientific knowledge and new medical treatments, even if it marks a step down from the original proposal for a $1 billion center.

 

"Patients suffering from debilitating and life-threatening diseases do not have the luxury to wait the 13 years it currently takes to translate new scientific discoveries into treatments that could save or improve the quality of their lives," said Francis Collins, director of the NIH.

 

Just 10 of every 100,000 compounds tested for drug development eventually become drugs available on the market. Such a low success rate means that potentially billions of dollars can lead to dead-end research and development by the pharmaceutical industry.

 

The new center combines many different NIH programs aimed at encouraging and speeding up the long process of turning scientific discoveries into new medical therapies or drugs. One program even targets rare or neglected diseases that don't get the attention of heart disease or cancer.

 

Most of the center's budget comes from funds previously used by the NIH Office of the Director, National Human Genome Research Institute, and National Center for Research Resources — perhaps a partial sign of tighter U.S.-government resources in harder economic times.

 

Still, the center is already helping spur new medical-innovation efforts. It will spearhead a joint effort by the NIH and the U.S. military's DARPA research arm to create miniaturized biochips that can act as human body parts and organs during drug testing. Such engineered human tissue could allow for more accurate and speedier drug testing by replacing lab rats.

 

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