Sunday, June 22, 2008

Heaven on Earth for Researchers

by Leane Scoz

Most people have heard of the largest charity in the United States, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, but few are probably familiar with the second largest, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI). A recent news segment on the CBS show, 60 Minutes, profiled the charity. Located in Chevy Chase, Maryland, the non-profit medical research institute invests about $450 million per year in biomedical research.

Howard Hughes is remembered as an aviator, engineer, film producer/director, playboy, and bazaar billionaire who suffered from obsessive-compulsive disorder. However, few think of him as a founder of one of the nation's largest private medical research organization. The institute was founded in 1953 by Hughes for the purpose of basic medical research "to probe the genesis of life itself."

Initially, the institute was thought to be the refuge for Hughes' fortune since non-profit organizations are tax exempt. However, after Hughes' death in 1976 and several years of court proceedings to determine the fate of his fortune, the institute experienced incredible growth. Today, it employs more than 2,600 people throughout the country and has an endowment of $18.7 billion.

What makes this organization more appealing to medical researchers than government agencies, such as the NIH? According to the HHMI, the institute is guided by the principle of "people, not projects." It supports researchers who take risks, think about big problems, and explore things that they would not otherwise be able to do if they were federally funded. Researchers are not responsible for huge amounts of paperwork to defend their need for funding. Instead, they are encouraged to spend more time in the laboratory and follow their ideas through to fruition no matter how long it takes.

The institute spends about $1 million per year per investigator and currently funds over 300 investigators. Because the HHMI is a private institute, researchers are permitted to work on controversial topics such as stem cell research from human embryos, which federal grant holders are not permitted to do. Scientists can change the course of their study if they so choose, such as leading stem cell and diabetes researcher, Douglas A. Melton, Ph.D., who switched from frog development research to juvenile diabetes research after his two children were diagnosed with the disease.

At the time of conception, Hughes probably never imagined his organization to be funding research on society's biggest health concerns. Today, the HHMI supports research on subjects ranging from AIDS, diabetes, and cancer to climate effects on cholera and malaria. The research possibilities and funding seem endless.

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