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Photo of Dr. France A. Córdova

Photo by NSF/
Stephen Voss

Dr. France A. Córdova
National Science Foundation


Before the
American Institute for Medical and Biological Engineering
National Academy of Science
Washington, DC

April 4, 2016

If you're interested in reproducing any of the slides, please contact the Office of Legislative and Public Affairs: (703) 292-8070.

[Slide #1: NSF and AIMBE: Partners in Bio-Medical Exploration]

Let me say what a delight it is to join American Institute for Medical and Biological Engineering for this 25th anniversary commemoration and have this opportunity to discuss NSF's commitment to state-of-the-art biomedical exploration with all of the organizations represented here.

AIMBE is a critically important part of our nation's scientific community. For the last quarter-century, NSF has been championing AIMBE's vital research and I want to assure you that we are committed to working with you -- and other partners in the community -- in continuing to support your vital scientific research in biomedical fields.

[Slide #2: NSF Director Massey celebrated the creation of AIMBE]

One of my predecessors at NSF -- Director Walter Massey -- saw the potential of the mission behind AIMBE. He spoke at the first annual meeting, and he led the way in supporting grants to this exciting area of innovative science.

I should add that Director Massey has been back in the news recently as the NSF Director who approved funding for one of the largest and most ambitious projects ever funded by the NSF -- the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory -- or LIGO.

That investment paid off just a few weeks ago when LIGO scientists announced they had observed gravitational waves, confirming a prediction of Albert Einstein's 1915 general theory of relativity. I'm sure you saw some of the very positive press coverage about the discovery.

[Slide #3: Health IS a national priority]

I know you are familiar with the National Science Foundation, but let me take a moment to talk about the big picture.

NSF was created nearly seven decades ago with the recognition -- expressed by visionary Vannevar Bush -- that "scientific progress is one essential key to our security as a nation ... higher standard of living, and cultural progress." One of Bush's key hopes for increased scientific research was to advance "our better health."

NSF works every day to carry out this vital mission by supporting basic -- or fundamental -- research that enables our Nation's best minds to realize their dreams, engaging the scientific curiosity of hundreds of thousands of scientists, engineers, researchers, educators and students across the country.

We never lose sight of NSF's obligation to "explore the unexplored" and inspire all of humanity with the wonders of discovery.

[Slide #4: NSF Overview]

NSF is the only federal agency dedicated to the support of basic research and education in all fields of science and engineering. We operate with an FY16 annual budget that is currently $7.5 billion, and 93 percent of that budget goes to support research and educational activities in states and communities across the country, principally at universities.

We receive about 50,000 proposals each year. Through a merit review process widely regarded as the gold standard of scientific review, NSF selects about 12,000 for funding. Funding support reaches about 2,000 institutions and 350,000 researchers annually.

How do we decide what research to fund? NSF program reviews have always focused on "intellectual merit." When funding projects, we can't always predict their impacts, but we give substantial weight to the "broader impacts" potential.

Broader impacts translates into first, reaching as wide a population of beneficiaries as possible, and second, reaching groups to encourage participation in STEM education and careers. And to that point, I recently issued a "Dear Colleague Letter" that releases the first NSF INCLUDES solicitation, which aims to fund about 40 Design and Development Launch Pilot projects.

You've probably heard that NSF INCLUDES is a comprehensive national initiative to enhance U.S. leadership by seeking and developing STEM talent from all sectors and groups in our society through access and engagement. It aims to improve the contributions of individuals from groups that traditionally have been underserved and/or underrepresented in the STEM enterprise, including women, blacks, Hispanics, and people with disabilities.

The U.S. science and engineering workforce can thrive if those groups are represented in percentages comparable to their representation in the overall U.S. population, but according to the National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics, we have a long way to go to reach that goal.

Overall, our merit review process yields results. At last count, NSF-supported researchers have received 217 Nobel Prizes -- although we invested in those Laureates' work long before they were recognized by the Nobel committees.

Many other NSF-funded researchers go on to receive other distinguished honors. For example, a few months ago, we celebrated the latest National Medal of Science winners, and found that eight of nine were funded by NSF.

[Slide #5: NSF's cross-directorate commitment to biomedical exploration]

NSF's commitment to biomedical research and exploration crosses our traditional Directorate boundaries, involving at least five of our Directorates, as shown in this slide.

Critical challenges in bio-medical research are complex and require multi-faceted approaches, so NSF has been innovative in supporting new areas of exploration that advance our understanding of the principles and mechanisms governing life.

Our research studies involve explorations into biological molecules, cells, tissues, organs, organisms, populations, communities, and ecosystems up to and including the global biosphere.

[Slide #6: NSF funding supported breakthroughs that led to development of MRI]

A good example of NSF's multi-faceted support of basic research that has translated into real-world medical research is magnetic resonance imaging. Its technology was made possible by combining information about the spin characteristics of matter with research in mathematics and high-flux magnets. NSF supported the underlying NMR spectroscopy, as well as research in other areas directly related to the development of MRI technology. These included electromagnetism, digital systems, computer engineering, biophysics and biochemistry. This support came from a variety of NSF Directorates pursuing fundamental, basic research. No one could have forecast an outcome like MRI.

And today, instead of expensive and often debilitating "exploratory surgery," many thousands of patients spend a half hour passing through an MRI tube and get an accurate diagnosis within minutes. This is the sort of breakthrough made possible by the unique partnership between NSF and the member organizations of AIMBE.

[Slide #7: Nanopore sequencer has been critical tool in combatting Ebola in Africa]

Another example with great promise: Nanopore DNA sequencing. In the 1990s the genome sequencing process was tedious, labor-intensive, time-consuming and expensive. In the last few years, researchers supported by NSF have been developing a new kind of DNA sequencer that is making "reading" a person's genetic code quick and inexpensive.

Pictured in the slide inset is the MinION, a handheld DNA-sequencing device that has been tested and evaluated by an independent, international consortium coordinated by European Molecular Biology Laboratory's European Bioinformatics Institute.

Last year, when the call for Ebola RAPID proposals were issued for urgent use in Africa, MinION's developers were ready. They used this exciting new technology to determine the immune signatures of individuals who survived Ebola Infections, a first step in developing new vaccines and therapeutics. In the future, this innovative technology opens up new possibilities for using sequencing technology in the field; for example, in tracking disease outbreaks, testing packaged food or the trafficking of protected species.

[Slide #8: CRISPR revolutionizes genomic manipulation and will lead to advances in precision medicine]

Long-standing efforts to edit and measure DNA -- as a means to alter protein production, study the underlying biology and correct defects to treat disease -- got a big boost a few years ago.

NSF-supported researchers discovered they could take Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats -- or CRISPR-Cas9 -- a naturally occurring defense mechanism bacteria use to fend off invading bacteria, and apply it to edit genes in mammalian systems.

CRISPR manipulates the genome of a cell with high precision -- a little like using computer word processing software to cut-and-paste words, sentences and paragraphs in a much longer document. CRISPR holds great promise for revolutionizing experimental genetic manipulation. In recent preliminary results, this technique has been reported to correct Retinitis Pigmentosa in both a rat model and in human patient derived stem cells, and to partially recover dystrophin expression and muscle function in a mouse model of muscular dystrophy.

Also, CRISPR-Cas9 has been shown to expedite production of biofuel precursors and specialty polymers in living systems. Among the other exciting prospects for this promising research is a greater understanding of the brain in terms of how cognitive abilities develop and can be maintained and improved throughout people's lives.

[Slide #9: Optogenetics for controlling the brain with light]

Our support for key research and data infrastructure has led to breakthroughs such as optogenetics and other advanced experimental and imaging techniques that are revolutionizing the study of brains across many organisms.

Optogenetics is a revolutionary new research technique that enables scientists to use light to precisely control the activity of neurons in the brain. In optogenetics, light-sensitive ion channels and pumps -- known as microbial opsins -- are genetically targeted to specific cells, so when light is delivered to those opsins, specific cells can be electrically activated or silenced.

In this image, a neuron is being illuminated by a focused beam of blue light. The opsins open, depolarizing or electrically activating the cell. The pulse of electricity spreads throughout the inside of the cell, triggering the release of neurotransmitters to downstream cells. This exciting breakthrough in genetic engineering demonstrates its potential to address many needs in the areas of biomedicine and biotechnology.

[Slide #10: Lensfree computational microscopy tools for telemedicine applications]

Bioengineering researchers funded by NSF have also invented new microscopy and imaging techniques that are compact and light-weight. They can be integrated into cellphones to convert them into cost-effective, handheld diagnostic tools.

For example, illustrated here is a lensfree holographic microscope that has been installed at the back of a cellphone. This microscope uses the shadows of objects to reconstruct their images using computer algorithms.

Such a breakthrough offers extraordinary new telemedicine opportunities for using new detection and sensing platforms to be deployed in resource-poor and remote locations, enabling widely expanded screening of infectious diseases such as malaria, TB and HIV. In addition to telemedicine applications, the same platform may be used for environmental monitoring by quantifying contamination of water, earth, or air.

[Slide #11: From bench to bedside: I-Corps is speeding development of new therapeutic medicines]

NSF's support of biomedical research is also exploring new paradigms for moving the results of that research from the lab into the real world. This is known colloquially as "from bench to bedside."

In 2011, we launched a new program -- Innovation Corps or I-Corps -- designed to create a public-private network of scientists, engineers, innovators, business leaders, and entrepreneurs to accelerate and strengthen our national innovation ecosystem. The idea is not to take money away from basic research but rather to assess the readiness of emerging technology concepts for transitioning into valuable new products, including promising biomedical applications.

In the slide, we see one such application in development. Until recently, a reliable, low-cost, non-invasive method to measure changes in the water content of human lungs did not exist. I-Corps-enabled researchers invented a new type of stethoscope that uses an EKG-like sensor and radio frequency (RF) sensor to detect small changes in lung water, and monitor vital signs including heart and respiration rate, and stroke volume.

I-Corps is yet another example of how NSF is facilitating the downstream development of technologies and processes from NSF-sponsored fundamental discoveries - and its promise for the biomedical community is only beginning to unfold. And the I-Corps model is now being replicated by NIH, the Department of Energy and other agencies.

[Slide #12: Synthetic biology - the next Silicon Valley?]

Taking the longer view, synthetic biology -- the integration of traditional biology and engineering to create entirely new biological functions and systems -- looks to be a very promising avenue for future biomedical exploration. Engineers are using synthetic biology to sustainably bio-manufacture new materials with advanced properties or chemicals historically made from petroleum, and to cultivate crop varieties that use less petroleum-based fertilizers.

Biologists, engineers, and social scientists use synthetic biology to address basic issues important to human health, such as, "What are the effects of potential drug candidates?" and "How could cells be reprogrammed to replace malfunctioning or damaged tissue?"

Synthetic biology possibly represents the next revolution -- like "Silicon" -- for the American economy, standard of living, and improvement in health. In 2006, NSF provided a grant to help lay the foundation for a new synthetic biology institution: Synberc. Synberc is a multi-university research center -- with its headquarters at UC-Berkeley -- and was established to:

  • develop the foundational understanding and technology needed to increase the speed, scale, and precision with which we design and build biological solutions;
  • train a new cadre of engineers who will specialize in synthetic biology; and
  • engage policymakers and the public about the responsible advance of synthetic biology.

Synberc's work will apply engineering principles to biology to develop tools that improve how fast -- and how well -- researchers can go through the design-test-build cycle. These might include smart fermentation organisms that can sense their environment and adjust accordingly, and multiplex automated genome engineering -- or MAGE -- designed for large-scale programming and evolution of cells. Synberc can also pursue the discovery of applications that can lead to significant public benefit, such as synthetic artemisinin, an anti-malaria drug that costs less and is more effective than the current plant-derived treatment.

[Slide #13: Bioengineering will be critical to U.S. economic growth, public health and competitiveness]

For more than 60 years, NSF has helped scientists chase the dreams and visions that become tomorrow's discoveries. We provide the real-world support that enable scientists to ask the "what-if" questions that empower curiosity, drive experimentation and lead us to ever-greater outcomes than we could have expected or imagined.

Think of the "what if" question NSF-funded biologist Osamu Shimomura asked when he wondered why certain jellyfish gave off a distinct green glow. The protein he found in the jellyfish -- green fluorescent protein or GFP -- revolutionized how scientists study cells.

GFP markers now allow researchers to track specific biological activities such as the spread of cancer, the production of insulin and the movement of HIV proteins. In 2008, Shimomura received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for the discovery and development of GFP -- along with Martin Chalfie and Roger Tsien.

Or consider the Taq polymerase bacterium discovered in the unlikely environment of hot mineral springs at Yellowstone National Park. An enzyme from these bacteria underpins a technique called polymerase chain reaction, which today constitutes one of the most important tools in the biotechnology industry. Its discovery led to DNA fingerprinting, an essential crime-fighting tool that has helped identify individual suspects based on their genetic profiles.

These "out there" discoveries were made possible by NSF's support for fundamental research. We will continue to make these investments in "patient capital" that may take years -- or even decades -- to bring rewards. We will do that because that's what our mission is -- to support the wonder of research, the quest for knowledge and the drive for solutions that lead to tomorrow's transformative discoveries.

Let me close by saying that -- like AIMBE -- I am also celebrating an anniversary. A few days ago, I marked my second anniversary since being sworn in as NSF Director. I have spent much of the last two years meeting with Members of Congress, Community leaders, Administration officials, NSF staff and our funded researchers and students across the U.S. -- and with similar governmental and academic leaders around the world.

I have come away with an even deeper appreciation of the interests and talents of everyone involved in the science and engineering, innovation and education ecosystem. I encourage everyone here to continue being public advocates for science and engineering research - speaking out about the contributions of federal investments to research and discovery and training the next generation of scientists and engineers. This is an exciting -- and challenging -- time for science. It is a time to nurture a mutually supportive environment that will empower biomedical researchers and all investigators, both as individuals and teams, to search for new knowledge and create the new tools needed for future discoveries.

I value your input on how we can keep our country at the forefront of biological innovation in the world today. I welcome any suggestions you have for how we can improve the outlook for continuing support for America's scientific research infrastructure - and for how our organizations can work together to forge a promising new future for biomedical exploration.

Thank you again for your time and for the opportunity to be with you on this important occasion and -- most importantly -- for all you do to advance the progress of science.