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House and Senate Committees Hold Joint Hearing on the NIH

On October 2, the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions and the House Energy and Commerce Committees held a joint hearing on the management of biomedical research at the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

NIH Director Elias Zerhouni stated that, “in the past, because of the incomplete state of our knowledge, NIH Institutes are currently organized around diseases, organ systems or stage of life. In the future, this will likely need to change and we should implement a regular process of review and propose, at appropriate intervals, modifications to the NIH structure.” Dr. Zerhouni introduced the “NIH Roadmap,” which will be implemented this month. He explained that the NIH Roadmap will provide “a framework for what we see as the strategies necessary to optimize the entire NIH research portfolio and accelerate the translation of discoveries into cures and treatments.”

A former NIH director and a member of the Committee on the Organizational Structure of the National Institutes of Health both offered their suggestions on how the NIH should be restructured and on what actions the authorizing committees should take to implement them.

During the question and answer session, Rep. Gene Green (D-TX) expressed his concern regarding recent studies that have linked silicone breast implants to high suicide rates and an increased risk for cancer among women. He also asked the witnesses to address NIH research on treatments for older women with scoliosis. Dr. Zerhouni said that he would provide Rep. Green with a written response at a later date.

Several Republican House Members asked Dr. Zerhouni to provide a written statement explaining the medical benefits associated with a number of sex-related research grants supported by the NIH. During consideration of the FY2004 Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education spending bill (H.R. 2660), the House rejected an amendment that would have prohibited the continued use of federal funds by the NIH to support these grants (see The Source, 7/11/03).

Although not a member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, Rep. Stephanie Tubbs Jones (D-OH) attended the hearing and was invited to address the panel after the testimony was completed. She has sponsored legislation (H.R. 2157) that would direct the NIH to expand its research on uterine fibroids, including the elevated risk among minority women. Witnesses agreed that more research needed to be done on uterine fibroids and that, in general, health disparities in racial populations remain a challenge for the NIH.

Reps. Lois Capps (D-CA) and Diana DeGette (D-CO) both expressed their interest in human embryonic stem cell research. They asked Dr. Zerhouni whether the NIH faced limitations since President Bush decided in August 2001 to allow the use of federal funds for only about 70 existing stem cell lines. He responded that the NIH is not limited with regard to funding, but that the challenge is stimulating more research in the field. He hoped to generate more interest in stem cell research, so that more doctors and researchers would enter the field.

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