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Yesterday, the Secretary of Energy, the Secretary of Health and Human Services, the Director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), and I signed a historic Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) to strengthen collaborations and enhance the biomedical research and public health response capabilities of the United States.

Progress in the biomedical sciences and public health is essential for the security and competitiveness of the United States as a whole.  Whether it’s tackling cancer, understanding the brain, or responding to public health emergencies like Ebola, Zika, pandemic influenza, or Hurricane Sandy, these challenges are not faced by one government department or agency alone but by all of us together.  Advances in medicine and the ability to rapidly respond to public health emergencies increasingly depend on integrating multiple and diverse disciplines—including the physical and data sciences and engineering—understanding complex systems, and developing new tools and approaches.  The DOE’s mission-driven research capabilities make it an especially important partner for increased collaboration with the National Institutes of Health and the Department of Health and Human Services more broadly.

This MOU builds on the already longstanding history of strong collaboration between DOE and NIH, including the Human Genome Project, which resulted in revolutionary advances and had a transformative impact on medicine and multiple other disciplines. The Human Genome Project consisted of an initial investment of less than $4 billion and resulted in nearly $800 billion in economic activity and created more than 300,000 jobs.  It also created a pathway for more rapid development of diagnostic tools for infectious disease like HIV, tuberculosis, malaria, and emerging pathogens like Ebola, SARS, and Zika viruses as well as significantly accelerated the pace of vaccine and drug development. It has transformed our understanding of diseases as diverse as dementia, mental illness, addiction, and diabetes and is fundamentally important to helping us untangle the roles of genetics, environment, zip codes, or behaviors in shaping the health and disease of individuals and communities. 

The NIH conducts and funds research on a variety of topics including genetics, aging, chronic and infectious diseases, mental health, conducts clinical trials, and supports bench to bedside translational science.  Many NIH activities including some of NIH’s major research thrusts align well with DOE’s capabilities, including the Precision Medicine Initiative (PMI), the Cancer Moonshot Initiative, and the Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative.  Although most DOE missions are directed to goals outside these areas, many of the materials, tools, and methods that DOE employs have direct applicability to the biomedical sciences and public health. The DOE’s scientific and technological innovation mission in particular includes the development and deployment of technologies to support economic prosperity, including the application of technologies it develops in areas outside of the energy sphere, such as those benefiting public health and medicine.

Particular DOE capabilities of interest include instrumentation, nanotechnology and materials science, modeling and simulation, radiochemistry and radiobiology, imaging and sensor technologies, and applications of high-performance computing. DOE scientists have already contributed to the important development of MRI, CT, and PET imaging diagnostic tools, as well as new therapeutics for cancer. This past year, DOE’s Exascale Computing Initiative and the National Strategic Computing Initiative partnered with the National Cancer Institute to launch several pilot projects aimed at changing our fundamental understanding of cancer.  With this MOU, the hope is that our two agencies will work together even more closely to find novel applications of DOE capabilities in many areas of biomedical and health research. Those include cancer, neuroscience, microbiology, the analysis of massive heterogeneous clinical and genetic data; radiology and radiobiology; biodefense, environmental health, and public health more broadly.

This MOU between DOE and the NIH is an opportunity to develop novel technologies, safer and more effective medicines, and greater insights in a diverse array of scientific fields, it will also prepare the next generation of interdisciplinary scientists to transcend the frontiers of science as we know it, and in the process, make our country and world healthier and more secure.