With $10 billion up for grabs, medical scientists in Philadelphia and across the nation are frantically seeking the researchers’ lifeblood: grant money.

The University of Pennsylvania wants $1.8 million to buy a “computer cluster” to compare drugs and learn which ones work better.

Rutgers is seeking a super computer. The Fox Chase Cancer Center is asking Uncle Sam for a DNA sequencer to quickly identify mutations in tumors. And the University of Pittsburgh wants a medical cyclotron for accurate medical imaging.

The instrument grants are a small portion of the billions that the National Institutes of Health will pump into medical research in the next two years as part of the $787 billion federal stimulus bill passed in February.

But the intense competition for those grants and other stimulus funds shows the high level of pent-up demand after years of stagnant funding at NIH.

Since 2005, Penn’s funding from the NIH, the government’s premier medical-research funder, has declined $34 million to $437 million for 1,117 grants and awards.

Still, Penn remained one of the nation’s top recipients, ranking third last year in NIH funding, although that did not count the more than $1 billion collected individually by various Harvard University groups.

By last week’s deadline to apply for high-end instrument grants, Penn, Rutgers, Fox Chase, and Pitt expected to have put in a total of 42 applications.

That is more than the 40 or so challenge grants that the NIH will give out overall, totaling about $160 million.

Last week, medical scientists were cramming to get another pot of money — so-called challenge grants — two-year, $1 million awards to make new or better treatments for patients.

The NIH said it received more than 15,000 proposals for 200 to 300 challenge grants.

Penn applied for 283 challenge grants, and the school says it expects to submit at least 672 applications to NIH for stimulus funds.

“We are being aggressive about our submissions,” said Glen N. Gaulton, chief scientific officer at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine. “But we are being strategic. … We don’t want our faculty to waste their time.”

Propelled by Penn and its cross-state rival, the University of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania ranked fourth in NIH funding last year behind California, Massachusetts and New York.

But with so much stimulus money sloshing around, research powerhouses like Penn and Pitt are getting plenty of competition.

Temple University submitted 90 applications for challenge grants, Rutgers University put in 75, and the Fox Chase Cancer Center 30.

Pitt — seventh in the nation with $377.4 million in NIH funding last year — applied for more than 400 challenge grants, about twice as many as the NIH is giving out nationally.

“We have examined every possible stimulus opportunity, assembled collaborative teams … and exhorted our faculty to put as much thought, creativity, and effort as is possible in applying for these funds,” Arthur S. Levine, dean of Pitt’s medical school, said in a statement.

Besides creating jobs and helping to jump-start the economy, Sally J. Rockey, acting deputy director for extramural research at NIH, said, “the purpose of these grants really is to accomplish something in two years.”

That’s a fast turnaround in medical research, where it often takes decades to go from discovery to helping patients, said Garret A. FitzGerald, director of Penn’s Institute for Translational Medicine and Therapeutics.

“We are grateful, we are cautious, and we are very keen that there is a recognition that two years isn’t enough,” FitzGerald said.

It is, however, a good start.

FitzGerald is seeking a challenge grant to see if a simple blood test could determine a patient’s risk of developing heart problems from commonly used painkillers — so-called NSAIDs such as Vioxx, which Merck removed from the market after it was linked to heart attacks and strokes.

“Exploring how people vary in their response to the same dose of the same drug can give us the information to move gradually towards being able to say with increasing confidence, ‘This drug is likely to work and to work safely in you,'” he said.

Brian L. Strom, director of the Center for Clinical Epidemiology and Biostatistics at Penn, looks at the impact of similar treatments in large groups of people — so-called comparative effectiveness.

Researchers at Strom’s center compare similar drugs against one another, something pharmaceutical companies rarely do because it could show that older, cheaper drugs are just as good as, or better than, expensive brand-name medications.

“There is no way we can offer health-care coverage to 45 million uninsured people without reducing the cost,” Strom said. “Part of the solution to the problem reducing cost without rationing care is good comparative-effectiveness research.”

The stimulus bill includes a focus on such studies.

It could also be a boon for young medical researchers, many of whom have been shut out of NIH funding in recent years.

“There had been a real problem of young scientists turning to other fields because of the scarcity in funding,” Sen. Arlen Specter, D-Pa., who helped put the medical-research money into the stimulus bill, said in an interview.

Specter does not want the stimulus package to be a one-time gain for NIH. “I want to add this $10 billion into the base (NIH budget) … to start each year with $40 billon,” he said.

Most of the new NIH money will supplement existing grants or go to already proposed research that was well-received by independent reviewers but was not funded because of the stagnation of NIH’s budget over the last five years.

To boost Penn’s chances, Gaulton has organized a virtual grant war room with a Web site, 24/7 staff support, daily e-mail messages, and more to spur researchers to put in for grants early and often.

Other area centers are also bolstering their support efforts to ensure their researchers go after stimulus money.

“The NIH funding is coming in lots of different pieces,” said J. Robert Beck, chief academic officer at Fox Chase. “That is good for institutions like ours because we can examine our mission and look at how we can reinforce the mission.”

That will be a good thing since the non-stimulus NIH grant cycle is still there.

Last week Gaulton sent another e-mail reminder to the Penn medical faculty:

“The upcoming ‘regular’ NIH new and competing deadline date: Internal Deadline: 9 a.m., Wednesday, 3 June — NIH Deadline: Friday, 5 June.”

(c) 2009, The Philadelphia Inquirer. Source: McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.