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Discovery for Health

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Photo: NIH

By Alison Davis

NIH's National Institute of General Medical Sciences celebrates 45 years of Discovery for Health

The National Institute of General Medical Sciences (NIGMS) is the NIH institute that primarily supports what is called "basic research"—exploratory research that lays the foundation for advances in disease diagnosis, treatment, and prevention. Each year since 1962, NIGMS has been funding the research of scientists who make advances in our understanding of fundamental life processes. Today, NIGMS funds more than 4,000 scientists who bring discovery to life.

In the course of answering basic research questions, these investigators increase our knowledge about the mechanisms and pathways involved in certain diseases. They also develop important new tools and techniques, some of which have medical applications. In recognition of the significance of their work, a number of NIGMS grantees have received the Nobel Prize and other high scientific honors. The Institute's research training programs help provide the next generation of scientists.

"We never know where the next major discovery is going to come from," says Jeremy M. Berg, Ph.D., and NIGMS Director. "But we do know that basic medical research is essential for tomorrow's health. Human curiosity creates cures."

It is this scientific curiosity among NIGMS researchers that helps extend our overall medical knowledge.

Jeremy M. Berg, Ph.D.

Jeremy M. Berg, Ph.D.
NIGMS Director
Photo courtesy of
NIH/ NIGMS

True or False

One of the valuable aspects of basic research is the discovery of new, previously unimagined scientific connections. For example:

True or False: Electrified bacteria help treat cancer patients.

Believe it or not, it's true. Well, what really happened was this: Years ago, a chemist was studying how electric fields affect bacteria. To his surprise, the platinum electrodes used in the experiment changed how the bacteria divided—even when he switched off the electric field. Later, he found the same thing in cancer cells. This insight led to the development of cisplatin, a cancer drug still used widely today.

Let's try another one: A biological revolution took place because a scientific experiment didn't work.

Yes, that's true, too. Fed up and hoping to recoup their losses on an experiment that didn't work, two researchers were trying to figure out a seemingly impossible result and in the process discovered "RNA interference," a powerful tool for manipulating genes. In just five years' time, the work transformed the way scientists all over the world do medical research and earned the persistent pair the 2006 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine.

These breakthroughs occurred when chance met curiosity. Most scientific progress is not accidental, but it is always driven by good ideas and perseverance. While a lot of medical research focuses on specific conditions, other studies are less targeted. They seek to understand human biology and disease. This is called basic research, and it builds a foundation of knowledge that improves health for all of us.

Read More "Building Blocks of Medical Research" Articles
Discovery for Health / Behind the Curtain / Fruit Flies Help Human Sleep Research / NIGMS's Living Labs

Summer 2007 Issue: Volume 2 Number 3 Page 22