NIH back to work but faces research backlog

President Barack Obama (right) looks through a microscope at brain cells with Dr. Marston Linehan (C) as he tours the National Institutes of Health (NIH) before making a major announcement regarding the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act at NIH in Bethesda, Md. on Sept. 30, 2009. JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images

The National Institutes of Health is back in business now that the partial government shutdown has ended, but the agency has a long road ahead of before things get back to normal.

Dr. Sally Rockey, NIH's Deputy Director for Extramural Research, thanked people for their continued support during the government shutdown on the agency's Extramural Nexus blog on Friday. She admitted it would be a while before the office, which is in charge of handing out research grants, would be back to normal.

"The shutdown came at one of our busiest periods and it is going to take some time to bring the extramural program back to full strength," she said.

During the shutdown, 73 percent of the NIH's 18,646 employees were put on enforced leave, according to Nature. In addition to the reduced staff, there were logistical issues to work out including how to halt ongoing experiments and how to manage the fact that many administrators would not be available to distribute grant funds to researchers.

Also closed during the government shutdown was the medical research database PubMed and its associated articles, as well as software tools. That included GenBank, the genetic-sequence database.

"Those of us doing molecular work are at a standstill," Robinson Fulweiler, an ecologist and biogeochemist at Boston University in Massachusetts, told Nature in early October. Even though she did not use NIH funds, she needed NIH resources and data for her work.

Patients were also turned away from the NIH's Clinical Center during the shutdown, a hospital that enrolls patients with incurable diseases in cutting-age research studies. NIH director Francis Collins estimated to the Associated Press Oct. 1 that the research hospital had to turn away about 200 patients -- including 30 children -- each week the shutdown went on.

The agency made exceptions to allow 12 patients with immediately life-threatening illnesses like cancer into research studies at the hospital.

Lab experiments at the NIH, ranging from creating better flu vaccines to finding the cause of autism, also were halted, according to the AP.

Because of the backlog of work, all October grant applications from researchers have been pushed back to November.

Other peer review meetings that were supposed to happen during the shutdown or were set to happen this or next week will also be rescheduled.

But, about 6,000 researchers working in NIH labs on hundreds of experiments have experienced a "profound loss of momentum," with their research, the NIH said in a statement to Science Magazine. The majority of products were put on hold, and it may take "many months" to restart them, the report added.

The good news is the government health agency is already moving forward. On Friday, it announced the award of $17 million in grants to help support genome research in Africa. The money will help the Human Heredity and Health in Africa (H3Africa) program, which is co-funded by the NIH and the U.K.'s Wellcome Trust

"Studying human diseases within populations with the greatest genetic variability and encouraging the contributions of our African colleagues should yield new insights about the role of genetics in health and disease," Dr. Eric D. Green, director of the National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI), said in a press release.

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