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National Institutes of Health

The Nation's Medical Research Agency

The National Institutes of Health (NIH), a part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, is the primary Federal agency for conducting and supporting medical research. Helping to lead the way toward important medical discoveries that improve people's health and save lives, NIH scientists investigate ways to prevent disease as well as the causes, treatments, and even cures for common and rare diseases. Composed of 27 Institutes and Centers, the NIH provides leadership and financial support to researchers in every state and throughout the world.

For over a century, the National Institutes of Health has played an important role in improving the health of the nation. The NIH traces its roots to 1887 with the creation of the Laboratory of Hygiene at the Marine Hospital in Staten Island, NY.

The NIH is an agency of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. With the headquarters in Bethesda, Maryland, the NIH has more than 18,000 employees on the main campus and at satellite sites across the country.

With the support of the American people, the NIH annually invests over $28 billion in medical research. More than 83% of the NIH's funding is awarded through almost 50,000 competitive grants to more than 325,000 researchers at over 3,000 universities, medical schools, and other research institutions in every state and around the world. About 10% of the NIH's budget supports projects conducted by nearly 6,000 scientists in its own laboratories, most of which are on the NIH campus in Bethesda, Maryland.

Improving Health and Saving Lives

Many important health and medical discoveries of the last century resulted from research supported by the National Institutes of Health. The NIH translates research results into interventions and communicates research findings to patients and their families, health care providers and the general public. In part because of NIH research, our citizens are living longer and better. Life expectancy at birth was only 47 years in 1900; by 2000, it was almost 77 years.

In the past several decades, NIH-supported research, and its national programs to communicate the results of research, played a major role in achievements such as:

  • Death rates from heart disease and stroke fell by 40% and 51%, respectively, between 1975 and 2000.
  • The overall five-year survival rate for childhood cancers rose to nearly 80% during the 1990s from under 60% in the 1970s.
  • The number of AIDS-related deaths fell by about 70% between 1995 and 2001.
  • Sudden infant death syndrome rates fell by more than 50% between 1994 and 2000.
  • Infectious diseases—such as rubella, whooping cough, and pneumococcal pneumonia—that once killed and disabled millions of people are now prevented by vaccines.
  • Quality of life for 19 million Americans suffering with depression has improved as a result of more effective medication and psychotherapy.

Medical Discovery

The National Institutes of Health supports and conducts medical research to understand how the human body works and to gain insight into countless diseases and disorders, from rare and unusual diseases to more familiar ones like the common cold. It supports a wide spectrum of research, from learning how the brain becomes addicted to alcohol to combating heart disease. The NIH is at the forefront of new progress in medical research:

  • The sequencing of the human genome set a new course for developing ways to diagnose and treat diseases like cancer, Parkinson's Disease and Alzheimer's Disease, as well as rare diseases.
  • In response to the anthrax attacks of 2001, the NIH launched and expanded research to prevent, detect, diagnose, and treat diseases caused by potential bioterrorism agents.
  • New and improved imaging techniques let scientists painlessly look inside the body and detect disease in its earliest stages when it is often most effectively treated.
  • Researchers aggressively pursue ways to make effective vaccines for deadly diseases like HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, malaria, and potential agents of bioterrorism.
  • Progress in understanding the immune system may lead to new ways to treat and cure diabetes, arthritis, asthma and allergies.
  • New, more precise ways to treat cancer are emerging, such as drugs that zero in on abnormal proteins in cancer cells.
  • Novel research methods are being developed that can identify the causes of outbreaks, such as Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), in weeks rather than months or years.

Scientific Leadership

In every state across the country, the NIH supports research at hospitals, universities and medical schools. The NIH is training the current and next generation of researchers to ensure that the capability to advance medical science remains strong. Many of these scientists-in-training will go on to become leading medical researchers and educators at universities; medical, dental, nursing, and pharmacy schools; schools of public health; non-profit health research foundations; and private medical research laboratories around the country.

As a Federal agency, the NIH considers many different perspectives in establishing research priorities. A very competitive peer-review system identifies and funds the most promising and highest quality research to address these priorities. This research includes studies that ultimately touch the lives of all people.

The NIH's own scientists, and scientists working with support from the NIH grants and contracts, have been responsible for countless medical advances. More than 100 of these scientists have received Nobel Prizes in recognition of their work.

At the forefront of research, the NIH focuses on current and emerging public health needs and promising areas of science. The NIH makes medical breakthroughs happen to improve people's health and save lives.

This page was last reviewed on June 19, 2007 .
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