The intramural research program of he National
Institute on Drug Abuse originated before NIDA was born - as the research
unit of a prison-affiliated PHS hospital in Lexington, Kentucky, where
addicted prisoners were treated and studied. It was renamed the Addiction
Research Center and attached to NIMH before it relocated to NIDA and its
current Baltimore location on the Johns Hopkins Bayview Research Campus
about 40 miles from Bethesda. In June, NIDA's IRP became the third (after
NCI and NIMH) to complete a detailed appraisal by outside reviewers. A
panel chaired by Stanley Watson, professor of psychiatry and codirector
of the University of Michigan Mental Health Research Institute, studied
the program for six months. A summary of its findings follows.
Though criticisms of the program's recent lack of leadership, mentoring,
spirit, and scientific vision were pointed, they were offered within the
context of two fundamental conclusions, neither of which had been foregone:
that the program remain in existence and that it remain in Baltimore.
Both issues were on the table in the panel's deliberations, and these
two conclusions reflected the belief that the IRP could and would set
the country's pace for drug-abuse research once certain recommended changes
"The pivotal issue in the decision to keep
the intramural research division open was the opportunity . . . to produce
an integrated view of drug use and substance-abuse biology across species,
including humans," the panel stated. Not least among the panel's
reasons for optimism was the recent recruitment of Barry Hoffer, "a
superb scientist, admirable mentor . . . and a person of vision and administrative
experience" to fill the long-vacant scientific director slot. "His
strong reputation in neuroscience will bring much-needed stature and scientific
credibility to the IRP," the panel said.
Conversely, the more than four-year absence of
a permanent clinical directorand the resulting deterioration in the quality
of clinical research, characterized by "mediocre protocols . . .
and poor integration of clinical and basic studies"remains to be
corrected, the panel said.
Also to improve the clinical research climate,
the panel recommended involving clinical investigators in study-participant
recruitment, and recruiting more African-American clinical scientists
to enhance the "ethnic match" between
the researchers and a large proportion of study volunteers.
In the matter of facilitating connections between
basic and clinical research, the reviewers viewed the Baltimore facility
in an especially favorable light, calling one of its "most valuable
features" the "housing of its entire scientific operation [including]
basic, translational, and clinical research and researchers . . . within
that one site." They considered this arrangement a strong argument
against moving any part of the IRP to Bethesda, despite the fact that
their review had revealed "virtually no significant information flow
between basic and clinical programs"
and an "almost universal lack of communication between groups,"
especially between branches, whose interactions they found to be marked
by secrecy and fierce competition for resources.
Consequently, they recommended incentives for collaboration,
Allocating budget and space resources contingent on active collaborations.
Tying funding for new basic science models to plans for shared
use, either with other intramural labs or the extramural community.
- Establishing team projects in such areas as translational research
and drug development.
The panelists counted among other advantages of
the Baltimore site its spaciousness, its "potential linkages"
with Johns Hopkins and other academic institutions, and its shared location
and increasing collaboration with components of the National Institute
on Aging (NIA) and the National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI).
They lauded NIDA's collaborative project with NHGRI's Center for Complex
Heritable Diseases on the human genetics of substance abuse and its plans
to share core facilities with NIA, including DNA sequencing and space
for nonhuman-primate studies. The panel encouraged NIDA-NIA collaboration
in "constructing a new shared facility."
The panel noted that NIDA's intramural research
budget in proportion to its total budget is only half that of other institute
allocations, accounting for 5.6% (of NIDA's $489 million), compared with
the 11.3% slice accorded NIH intramural research programs overall. It
did not, however, suggest any change.in the amount but instead recommended
changes in the way the money is divvied up within the IRP.
Each independent investigator's lab should have
its own budget, the panelists advised, with the scientific director -
not the branch chiefs - making budgetary decisions based on each lab's
past productivity and future plans and NIDA's research priorities. This
change, the panel reasoned, would minimize competition at the branch level,
raise investigator morale from its current low level, and foster investigator
independence from the branch chief.
Currently vacant branch chief slots should be filled
promptly, the panelists said, with fine scientists who are also accomplished
New Scientific Director
On the Move - and Here to Stay
is a brain disease."
new to have had no opportunity to do anything wrong" is how
Barry Hoffer, NIDA's new scientific
director explains the praise accorded him by the independent panel
that reviewed NIDA's intramural research program.
only did the reviewers deem him a "superb scientist"
and an "admirable mentor," they also predicted his leadership
would position NIDA to be the "premier substance-abuse research
center in the world, in both the basic and clinical arenas."
they also put forth an extensive "to-do list" to overcome
the deficiencies that have kept that potential from being realized.
It's a list that Hoffer embraces.
all the recommendations are being implemented, or will be,"
Hoffer said in an interview with The NIH Catalyst.
most crucial of the panel's directives, he said, are to inspire
NIDA intramural research groups to communicate with one another,
to strengthen the clinical research program, and to "protect
and develop younger investigators and staff scientists."
came to NIDA last September from the University of Colorado School
of Medicine in Denver, where he was a professor of psychiatry
and pharmacology. The reviewers began their work in December and
issued their report and recommendations in June, but the new SD
began fixing things as soon as he
unpacked. "Many of the needs [the panel addressed] were obvious"
at the start, he said, citing especially a "clear need for
Hoffer selected Roy Pickens to be associate director for training
and education. "I have a short institutional memory, but
to my knowledge, no one previously was charged with mentoring
fellows and postdocs," he said, noting that there is now
a written document to guide the mentoring process. A weekly seminar
series is also in full swing.
In the realm of improved communication
among the branches, Hoffer has "called in people from different
branches to talk and also to let it be known that I have a modest
director's reserve fund, a little extra to prime the pump for
projects, particularly those with collaborative components. They're
writing proposals to me," he said, crediting NIDA director
Alan Leshner with having provided him with the discretionary funds.
A direct funding line from the SD to independent
investigators, another panel suggestion to which Hoffer subscribes,
is actually also in line with "new winds blowing through
all of NIH that independent investigators ought indeed be independent,
free to work on projects of their choosing." Scrutiny by
the Board of Scientific Counselors, he added, is the quality-control
mechanism for their research. "We formed an implementation
committee, to which the branch chiefs will
have input, that will report to Dr. Leshner
and Dr. Michael Gottesman [deputy director for intramural research]
by October 1."
Hoffer also responded with alacrity to
the panel's exhortation that a permanent clinical director be
found to replace the nearly five-year rotating directorship that
had left the clinical research arm of the intramural program dangling.
"Jean-Luc Cadet, a clinician-scientist and intramural section
chief, is our new clinical director," he said, adding that
filling the two branch chief vacancies awaits "overall restructuring"
of the IRP that targets more collaborative and translational research.
"We don't know yet how those two branches will fall out,"
he said. He estimated that the reorganization would take six months
to a year.
He and Cadet, Hoffer said, are working
to draw together another extramural panel to evaluate exclusion
and inclusion criteria for clinical trials. He expressed uncertainty
regarding the wisdom of the review
panel's suggestion that clinical investigators be involved in
recruiting for their own trials. Regarding the panel's observations
on the ethnic mismatch of NIDA clinical investigators and the
80% African-American study population, Hoffer noted that the study
population reflects the demographics of the Baltimore area, where
NIDA's Addiction Research Center is located, as well as the demographics
of that segment of the population willing to participate in research
- not the demographics of addiction in this country. "I am
committed to diversity in the patient and investigator pool,"
he added, noting, however, that there is currently only one other
African-American clinical investigator in the IRP in addition
Staying in Baltimore seems not only inevitable
- "Bethesda is very crowded" - but also desirable. "We
have good space here, and we're planning research on the genetics
of drug abuse with NHGRI's Center for Complex Heritable Diseases,
which is right here." The recommendation that NIDA and its
other Baltimore neighbor, NIA, share resources is especially appealing
to Hoffer. "My background is in aging research, and NIA's
scientific director, Dan Longo, and I have started a series of
discussions with the directors of our institutes and with Dr.
Varmus. I'm not sure where it will all go, but I'm certainly enthusiastic.
NIDA and NIA have common interests in molecular biology and gene
sequencing, in animal research - and a common
vivarium makes sense - and collaboration with NIA scientists only
50 paces away would be even better than the short walk we now
He hesitated to stipulate scientific objectives
for NIDA's IRP, explaining that he's a "firm believer in
investigator-initiated research." He sees a general need
for more translational research in treatment and prevention -
especially in cocaine-addiction therapies and methamphetamine-addiction
prevention - and more collaborative research with other neuroscience
institutes. "Addiction is a brain disease, like schizophrenia
and Parkinson's disease," he said. He pointed to the need
for more research in fundamental neuroscience - a field with which
he has more than passing familiarity.
Hoffer's Catalyst interview was
by phone at the end of one of the days of the Gordon research
conference on catecholamines, where he presented a talk on his
research on dopamine neuronal plasticity and development and was
a discussant at another session on neuroimaging applications in
addiction research. He fully intends to continue his research.
"I would not have taken this job otherwise," he said,
adding that he's "hoping to stay at NIH indefinitely, as
long as the Board of Scientific Counselors is happy with me."
- Fran Pollner
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