Michael D. Wheeler
Officials at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) are trumpeting a new initiative: improving bioengineering technology. As part of this thrust, the agency has promised more support -- and more money -- to advance imaging technology.
In February, the agency sponsored a symposium open to top engineers, physicists and biologists in the US to identify key areas in bioengineering. The scientists consistently named imaging, along with computing and tissue engineering, as top areas of concern.
Wendy Baldwin, the institutes' deputy director for extramural research and chairwoman of an agencywide committee exploring bioengineering research, said researchers involved in imaging would benefit directly from increased funding through various grants and contracts. More than half of the $260 million in the institutes' Small Business Innovation Research and Small Business Technology Transfer grants for this fiscal year has been earmarked for bioengineering research.
In addition, the National Center for Research Resources -- an agency committed to funding research in the bioengineering field -- has seen the largest increase in funds within the institutes. The center also plans to spend at least $35 million next year on shared instrumentation grants to groups of researchers who get together to buy high-end research devices, marking a 25 percent increase over last year's $28 million.
The hope is that the increased funding will spur researchers to improve imaging technologies to collect data at the molecular and cellular levels. Charles Putnam, a Duke University scientist and former president of the Academy of Radiology Research in Washington, said at the symposium that the new funds could lead to some important advances. Putnam pointed to the need for improvements in magnetic resonance imaging spectroscopy, optical coherence tomography and two-photon microscopy. There also is a campaign to launch a biomedical imaging institute within the National Institutes of Health, he said.
Broadening its reach
The new initiatives mark a departure for the institutes, which have traditionally shied away from hardware-development projects. "Historically with technology development there hasn't been an investment by the NIH," Putnam said. That could be due to several factors: the lack of a coherent voice by the imaging community to push for more funding and a long-held view by the agency that technological development should be the concern of industry.