The National Institutes of Health in the USA has set up a new programme to revamp the way it carries out ‘translational medicine,’ in which discoveries in the laboratory are brought into clinical trials and ultimately into medical practice.

By 2012, the agency will spend $500 million a year on up to 60 new clinical research centres, according to the NIH’s director Elias Zerhouni.

An initial network of 12 academic health centres have already been named, which includes eminent institutions such as the Mayo Clinic, Duke University, Yale University and Columbia University.

The network of hospitals will be charged with improving the design of clinical trials to ensure that patients with rare as well as common diseases benefit from new therapies, developing new and improved clinical research and informatics tools, and to encourage and nurture a new generation of clinical researchers.

Part of the programme will focus on improved outreach efforts to minority and medically-underserved communities, the assembly of interdisciplinary teams to bring the complete spectrum of research together and to forge new partnerships with private and public health care organisations.

“The development of this consortium represents the first systematic change in our approach to clinical research in 50 years,” said Zerhouni. “Working together, these sites will serve as discovery engines that will improve medical care by applying new scientific advances to real world practice.”

Columbia University, for example, will set up a programme to train clinical and translational investigators and a facility dedicated to paediatric trials, while Duke implement training programmes, create a new Clinical Translational Science Institute and develop a community model for understanding how to translate the findings of research from bench to bedside, to populations using advanced informatics and health services delivery methods.

The initiative grew out of the NIH commitment to re-engineer the clinical research enterprise, one of the key objectives of the NIH Roadmap for Medical Research which was implemented in 2002.