San Diego

The US National Institutes of Health (NIH) has awarded $350 million in grants to eight university consortia to set up research centres that will spearhead the country's biodefence research effort.

The consortia will each receive between $35 million and $50 million over five years from the NIH's National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) to boost research programmes on defences against biological weapons.

Anthony Fauci, the NIAID's director, says: “The new programme provides a coordinated and comprehensive mechanism to support the interdisciplinary research that will lead to new and improved therapies, vaccines, diagnostics and other tools to protect the citizens of our country and the world.”

By the end of this month the NIAID will also announce one or two institutions that could receive as much as $120 million to build biological containment facilities for research on the deadliest pathogens.

In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001 and the subsequent anthrax mailings, the NIAID boosted its bioweapons defence programmes by increasing grants and inviting institutions to host the new research centres.

About 15 consortia applied for the scheme. The winners, which were announced on 4 September, are led by Duke University in Durham, North Carolina; Harvard Medical School in Boston, Massachusetts; the New York State Department of Health; the University of Chicago and Northwestern University, both in Illinois; the University of Maryland in Baltimore; the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston; the University of Washington in Seattle; and Washington University in St Louis, Missouri.

“While this project has been driven by concerns about bioterrorism, the knowledge gained could have a significant impact on humanity's eternal battle against all infectious diseases,” says geneticist Olaf Schneewind of the University of Chicago, one of the programme's principal investigators.