Genomic Repairman has a little rant up over at Labspaces in which he becomes exasperated at someone in his field who has had two R01 continuously for at least 26 years. Abel Pharmboy has already dealt with this in hilarious fashion (weedhopper? — haven’t heard that one before) so I won’t belabor the obvious; however, I would like to point out a few long-standing grants in my area — pain research — that have had a profound impact on our understanding of pain.
Let’s start with what, to my knowledge, is the granddaddy of them all in the pain field: Ed Perl’s 36 year old (expired in 2008) R01 entitled “SPINAL AND PROJECTION MECHANISMS RELATED TO PAIN”. If you’ve got a neuroscience or general medicine textbook handy, look up the word “nociceptor”. These are pain sensing neurons in the peripheral nervous system. Now go read what the textbook says. There should be something there about how these neurons are noxious stimulus detectors that specifically respond to stimulation in the noxious range. They also respond to many chemicals and temperature changes into the too hot and cold to handle range. What you just read is work that was funded by this R01. Similarly, if you are interested in how noxious input is processed in the dorsal horn of the spinal cord much of what you will find in the textbooks came from Ed Perl’s work funded by this R01.
How about another old one (the grant, not the person): Gerald (Jerry) Gebhart’s 28 year old R01 entitled “MECHANISMS AND MODULATION OF VISCERAL PAIN”. Of his 300+ publications, many of them were funded by this long-standing R01. Like Ed Perl’s grant, to understand the contribution that this continuously funded grant has had on our appreciation of pain processing is quite simple — pick up a textbook. Much of what we know about visceral pain has come from work done in this grant. The work spans from understanding how descending modulation systems (periaqueductal grey (PAG) and rostral ventromedial medulla (RVM)) amplify pain of a visceral origin to the receptors and molecules responsible for causing visceral pain. Pretty important stuff and, I might add, if you are working in Pharma trying to develop drugs to target visceral pain, chances are you are relying pretty heavily on Jerry’s work not only for target identification but also for the techniques that you will use to validate whether your drugs are doing what you want them to do. You may have also noted from that link above that Dr. Gebhart is also the current President of the International Association for Pain.
Let’s do one more shall we… Allan Basbaum’s 33 year old R37 (Merit Award) entitled “BRAINSTEM CONTROL OF PAIN TRANSMISSION”. Where to start with this one? Anatomical mechanism of analgesic action of opioids: check. Anatomy of bulbospinal projections to the dorsal horn of the spinal cord: check. The list could go on and on. Again, this is all standard textbook stuff now. One thing that really interests me about this grant is the remarkable transformation that the work has undergone as state-of-the-art techniques in biomedical science have changed. Perhaps more than any one else I can think of in the field, Dr. Basbaum’s lab has not only kept up but consistently led in continuing to push the edge in terms of using the latest and greatest techniques to address problems in new and exciting ways. He’s also the current Editor in Chief for Pain, the most influential journal in the field.
There are many more such examples in the field but I think you get the point. If you search for all 3 of the researchers I have highlighted above in NIH Reporter (all years, not active projects) you will note that these long-standing grants represent the bulk of the funding that each of these PIs have held over their careers. In my view this adds considerable stability to the field with very little sign of stagnation. Its interesting to check the abstracts for these grants in renewal years (generally every 5 years). You will note a remarkable change in the hypotheses being addressed and a real progression in the work from funding period to funding period. One might even argue (I would) that the titles don’t really fit the grant anymore but that’s part of the beauty of choosing a very general sounding title. I wish I would have done that for my first R01.