BETHESDA - - President Barack Obama toured a Maryland cancer lab Wednesday to promote the awarding of $5 billion in new government health science grants, which he described as the "largest single boost to biomedical research in history."
The National Institutes of Health grants, distributed in recent weeks to more than 12,000 projects around the country, are funded under the $787 billion federal stimulus program that Obama signed into law in February. In all, about $100 billion in stimulus money is to go to science and technology projects, according to the administration.
At least 441 of the grants were awarded to recipients in Maryland, according to preliminary NIH information. A total of 257 grants went to researchers at the Johns Hopkins University and 96 to projects at the University of Maryland, Baltimore.
The stimulus program is "not just about creating make-work jobs. It's about creating jobs that will make a lasting difference for our future," Obama told several hundred scientists at the NIH campus.
The White House said the grants will help generate tens of thousands of jobs, either directly in research or in businesses that supply laboratory equipment or will be involved in modernizing research facilities.
Obama briefly visited one of those labs, part of the National Cancer Institute's urologic oncology branch, where he peered through a microscope at a piece of brain tissue.
Later, before an audience of NIH employees and invited guests, he took a swipe at his predecessor, George W. Bush, though not by name, for politicizing science during his presidency.
In recent years, Obama said, U.S. leadership in medical innovation has slipped "as scientific integrity was at times undermined and research funding failed to keep pace."
Dr. Francis Collins, appointed by Obama as NIH director, introduced the president as "our scientist in chief" and expressed gratitude for "a president who values science" and "respects its independence."
More than $1 billion of the stimulus grant money will go to research stemming from the Human Genome Project, which Collins formerly headed. Since the first human genome was sequenced less than 10 years ago, researchers have sequenced the genomes of about a dozen other organisms. The new research is expected to enable scientists to sequence more than 2,300 complete genomes, according to NIH.
Included will be $175 million for the Cancer Genome Atlas project, which hopes to study the genetic underpinnings of at least 20 cancers over the next five years by collecting and analyzing 20,000 tissue samples from tumors. The work will be carried out by more than 150 scientists at dozens of locations around the country, according to NIH.
Another $750 million in stimulus money will go toward heart, lung and blood disease research. Among the projects is one that will study the DNA of participants in the long-running Framingham study of cardiovascular disease, which began in 1948.
Collins, in a statement, predicted that scientists will soon see "a quantum leap in our understanding of cancer." He called the genome atlas "an excellent example of how the Recovery Act is fueling discoveries that will fundamentally change the way we fight disease and improve our lives."
Scientists will also use the stimulus grants, which helped swell the NIH annual budget by about 15 percent, for exploring autism, HIV-AIDS and swine flu.
Before Obama's arrival, the National Institutes of Health screened government-produced promotional videos designed to connect stimulus funding to current research projects. Several scientists from Hopkins, including faculty from the medical school in Baltimore, were among those featured.
Dr. Kerry Stewart, a professor of medicine at Hopkins, said a stimulus grant had created the equivalent of five full-time jobs in his diet and exercise project. The exercise physiology study is designed to investigate the impact of diet and exercise on people who have diabetes or are at risk of diabetes.
Dr. Pamela Zeitlin, a pediatrics professor at the Hopkins Children's Center, said her NIH grant is for basic laboratory research into alternate gene treatment for cystic fibrosis. She said her project is "much closer" to reaching the clinical trial stage because of stimulus funding.
Among those on hand for Obama's speech were Democratic Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, a proponent of funding for NIH, who got a standing ovation, and Democratic Rep. Chris Van Hollen, whose Maryland district includes NIH.
A list of the NIH Recovery Act grants can be found at http://report.nih.gov/recovery/arragrants.cfm.
Maryland schools and facilities are getting at least 441 grants through stimulus funding:
Johns Hopkins University: 257 grants
University of Maryland, Baltimore: 96
University of Maryland, Baltimore County: 13
Jackson Foundation for Advancement of Military Medicine: 10
Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation: 7
University of Maryland Biotechnology Institute: 5
Gynecologic Oncology Group: 4
17 other public and private institutions in Maryland, including the J. Craig Venter Institute and Smiths Detection, also received grants, according to NIH.