The National Institutes of Health (NIH) traces its roots to 1887, when a one-room laboratory was created within the Marine Hospital Service (MHS), the predecessor agency to the U.S. Public Health Service (PHS). An agency of the Department of Health and Human Services, today NIH is the nation’s focal point for health research. Francis S. Collins, M.D., Ph.D., officially became director of NIH in 2009.

A patient’s brain activation and biomechanics are measured while walking on a treadmill in the Motion Analysis Lab at the National Institutes of Health. (NIH)

For more than a century, NIH scientists have paved the way for important discoveries that improve health and save lives. In fact, 148 Nobel Prize winners have received support from NIH. Their studies have led to the development of MRI, understanding of how viruses can cause cancer, insights into cholesterol control, and knowledge of how our brain processes visual information, among dozens of other advances.

NIH’s mission is to seek fundamental knowledge about the nature and behavior of living systems, and apply that knowledge to enhance health, lengthen life, and reduce illness and disability. To realize these goals, NIH provides leadership and direction to programs designed to improve the health of the nation by conducting and supporting research in the following areas: the causes, diagnosis, prevention, and cure of human diseases; the processes of human growth and development; the biological effects of environmental contaminants; the understanding of mental, addictive, and physical disorders; and directing programs for the collection, dissemination, and exchange of information in medicine and health.

NIH is the largest public funder of biomedical research in the world, investing more than $30 billion in taxpayer dollars to achieve its mission to enhance health, lengthen life, and reduce illness and disability. In pursuing this mission, NIH improves health by promoting treatment and prevention, contributes to society by driving economic growth and productivity, and expands the biomedical knowledge base by funding cutting-edge research and cultivating the biomedical workforce of today and tomorrow.

Institutes and Centers

The National Institutes of Health is made up of components called Institutes and Centers. Each has its own specific research agenda, often focusing on particular diseases or body systems.

NIH scientists in the Diamond Lab at the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke uncovered how neurons in the eye may use math to distinguish moving objects. (NIH)

Established in 1937, the National Cancer Institute (NCI), through basic and clinical biomedical research and training, conducts and supports research to prevent cancer, identify cancers that do develop at the earliest stage, eliminate cancers through innovative treatment interventions, and biologically control those cancers that cannot be eliminated so they become manageable, chronic diseases. Research projects conducted in NCI labs have led to better tools for understanding, detecting, and treating cancer.

The National Eye Institute (NEI) conducts and supports research, training, health information dissemination, and other programs with respect to eye diseases and visual disorders. NEI-funded research has established treatments for diabetic retinopathy, a potentially blinding form of diabetic eye disease. Clinical trials at NEI have shown that for patients with age-related macular degeneration (AMD), taking supplements with high levels of antioxidants and zinc can reduce the risk of vision loss from advanced AMD. NEI has also supported research on effective glaucoma drugs that reduce elevated eye pressure, a significant risk factor for this blinding disease. NEI has contributed to the development of medical lasers to treat the wet form of AMD, to diagnose and treat patients with glaucoma, and to correct myopia and other refractive errors.

NIH also oversees the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD) — which conducts and supports biomedical research on normal mechanisms, as well as diseases and disorders of hearing, balance, smell, taste, voice, speech, and language — and the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research (NIDCR), which seeks to understand, treat, and ultimately prevent infectious and inherited craniofacial-oral-dental diseases and disorders.

The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI) provides research, training, and education on the prevention and treatment of heart, lung, and blood diseases. For more than half a century, the NHLBI has been turning scientific discovery into better health. Through the Institute’s investment in basic and clinical research at universities and medical centers across the nation, its innovative educational programs, and its key role in shaping national and global public health policy, the NHLBI has improved the lives of millions of people affected by once-untreatable heart, lung, and blood diseases. NIH also oversees the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK), which conducts and supports medical research on diabetes and other endocrine and metabolic diseases; digestive diseases, nutritional disorders, and obesity; and kidney, urologic, and hematologic diseases.

In 1989, the National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI) was developed to carry out the role of NIH in the International Human Genome Project. With the human genome sequence completed in April 2003, scientists around the world have access to a database that greatly facilitates and accelerates the pace of biomedical research.

The National Institute on Aging (NIA) leads a national program of research on the biomedical, social, and behavioral aspects of the aging process. The hope is that one day these findings will be translated into strategies or treatments to prevent, delay, or slow age-related diseases. The National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases (NIAMS) supports research into the causes, treatment, and prevention of arthritis and musculoskeletal and skin diseases.

The largest funder of alcohol research in the world, the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) conducts research focused on improving the treatment and prevention of alcoholism and alcohol-related problems. Research covers scientific areas including genetics, neuroscience, epidemiology, prevention, and treatment. The NIH also oversees the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), which advances science on the causes and consequences of drug use and addiction, and the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) for understanding, treating, and preventing mental illnesses through basic research on the brain and behavior, and through clinical, epidemiological, and services research.

Research at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) focuses on understanding, treating, and ultimately preventing infectious, immunologic, and allergic diseases. NIAID supports investigators at universities and other outside organizations who conduct basic and applied research relevant to this mission. NIAID research has led to new therapies, vaccines, diagnostic tests, and other technologies that have improved the health of millions of people in the United States and abroad.

Polarized crystals (photographed through a microscope) of the drug 2-3 dideoxyadenosine, also known as ddA, a drug that is closely related to AZT or azidothymidine. The antiviral effect of ddA against HIV was discovered at the National Cancer Institute. (Larry Ostby, National Cancer Institute, NIH)

The mission of the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering (NIBIB) is to improve health by leading the development and accelerating the application of biomedical technologies such as biosensors, image processing, drug delivery systems, x-ray and ion beam technologies, and rehabilitation engineering.

The National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) has worked for more than 50 years to discover how the environment affects people. Research milestones of the NIEHS include issuing the first reports on carcinogens, the first report in 1985 on the link between secondhand smoke and cancer, leading climate change efforts, and linking air pollution to many causes of death.

Since 1950, the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS) has sought fundamental knowledge about the brain and nervous system, and uses that knowledge to reduce the burden of neurological disease. Research areas include traumatic brain injury, stem cell research, spinal cord injury, and Alzheimer’s Disease research.

Research-to-Practice in Neurotechnology

NIH support and years of research have enabled vast advances in neurotechnology, specifically to help Americans compensate for lost function using electrical stimulation to enhance neural activity. NIH, along with many other contributors, has guided and supported this research, helping to take neurostimulation technologies from initial discoveries in the lab to innovative treatments for patients.

Magnetoencephalography (MEG) can non-invasively detect brain electromagnetic activity lasting only milliseconds — the speed of communications in neural circuits — whereas other functional brain imaging techniques can only capture activity that last seconds or minutes, and some involve radiation exposure. This precise timing enables the MEG scanner to capture the brain’s split-second responses.

Technologies for electrically stimulating the nervous system allow patients to compensate for many types of nerve damage. To treat hearing loss, for example, approximately 324,000 cochlear implants have been implanted worldwide, in roughly 58,000 U.S. adults and 38,000 U.S. children. NIH-supported research has driven the development of hearing aids from the first electronic hearing devices invented in the 1950s, to the sophisticated digital devices available today.

In the 1970s, NIH-funded research used technology from spinal cord stimulation to develop the first long-term implanted device to stimulate the brain. Building on advances in stimulating the nervous system with electricity, emerging neurostimulation technologies have the promise of restoring vision and movement after paralysis and traumatic injury. Deep brain stimulation is used to help relieve symptoms of Parkinson’s disease and Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, and is currently being tested in other neuropsychiatric conditions, such as treatment-resistant depression and dementia.

Work with NIH

Many important medical breakthroughs begin in the research laboratories at the NIH. Technology transfer begins in these laboratories and makes these discoveries available to improve public health through licensing and collaboration agreements with the private sector. The NIH technology transfer function moves medical innovation from the benchtop through additional research and development, testing, regulatory approval, manufacturing, and finally to distribution as a medical product that will improve the health of everyone.

For More Information

Visit NIH at here . To learn more about licensing NIH-developed technologies, visit the Office of Technology Transfer at here .


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This article first appeared in the September, 2017 issue of Tech Briefs Magazine.

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