As we ring in the new year, I want to take a moment to reflect on the positive and productive year we have had at NIAMS. From funding a range of outstanding research and sharing key highlights, to supporting career development opportunities, staying engaged with key audiences, and maintaining our commitment to ensuring diversity, equity, and inclusion, 2023 was a year to remember.
NIAMS-funded investigators have continued to push our important research agenda forward. A few examples of this from the past year include the following:
- Research suggesting that better mobility is linked to longer working years and higher income;
- Research highlighting different causes of inflammation in people with rheumatoid arthritis (RA), which could inform the development of more tailored RA treatments;
- A series of papers from the Back Pain Consortium (BACPAC) Research program, part of the NIH Helping to End Addiction Long-term® Initiative, or NIH HEAL Initiative®;
- A study illustrating the vast diversity of skin microbes in atopic dermatitis, which could lead to identifying new therapeutics for preventing or treating severe skin diseases;
- Recent approval of the first topical gene therapy for dystrophic epidermolysis bullosa, following years of NIAMS-funded research on the skin condition.
These highlights represent a fraction of the advances that NIAMS-supported research has uncovered, but they reflect the impact of our work.
Leadership and Career Development Programming
NIAMS is dedicated to developing the next generation of researchers by offering many programs to feed the research pipeline. I am proud to have had a hand in launching the Leadership Scholars Program (LSP) in Women’s Health, Autoimmune and Immune-Mediated Diseases. Developed in partnership with the NIH Office of Research on Women’s Health (ORWH) and the NIH Office of Data Science Strategy, the program was designed to improve the health of women by supporting the research and development of scholars who specialize in women’s health studies in autoimmune and immune-mediated diseases. This past year, we announced the inaugural cohort of scholars and issued a new funding opportunity, which is open until April 1, 2024, to solicit applications for the second cohort.
Last summer, the NIAMS Intramural Research Program (IRP) welcomed a cohort of 16 interns to participate in the NIAMS Summer Internship Program, known as InVTRO. The students, ranging from university undergraduate through medical school, joined our IRP labs to learn first-hand from our seasoned investigators about careers in biomedical research. IRP’s Career Development and Outreach Branch (CDOB) also provides monthly career exploration seminars where invited guests discuss their career pathways and offer advice. CDOB also provides access to training and guidance for the annual NIH-wide, Three-Minute Talks Competition, in which a NIAMS postbac took second place last year.
While NIAMS has co-sponsored the Building Interdisciplinary Research Careers in Women’s Health (BIRCWH) program for many years, we recently assumed responsibility for grants management activities associated with the awards. BIRCWH, which is led by ORWH, provides career development training opportunities by connecting junior faculty with senior faculty who have a shared interest in women’s health and sex differences research.
Community Outreach and Engagement Efforts
NIAMS is committed to supporting scientific discoveries and bolstering our research workforce, but we cannot forget the communities for whom we do this work. Last year, the NIAMS IRP, in collaboration with the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, re-engaged with the local Washington, D.C., community through the Hope Center, which is now part of the NIAMS Community Health Clinic. This new partnership has the benefit of allowing participants in certain NIAMS clinical protocols to be seen within their local community, so they do not need to come to the NIH campus.
As I mentioned in my last Director’s message, I also attended my first in-person NIAMS Coalition Outreach and Education Meeting, where I met with representatives from more than 40 NIAMS Coalition organizations. Additionally, NIAMS held a virtual meeting series in which we received thoughtful feedback from community groups and other partners to help shape our next Strategic Plan. These important interactions help build trust in the work that we do and show our partners that we truly value their diverse input and experiences.
Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Accessibility Priorities
The examples above demonstrate the Institute’s respect and desire for diversity of thought and experience. As I’ve said before, research shows that more diverse teams outperform less diverse ones, and hiring and retaining a diverse cadre of scientists has undoubtedly contributed to our success and to successes within the grantee community. I am committed to ensuring that voices from diverse groups are heard and that our research continues to bridge health equity and health disparity gaps that affect understudied and underserved populations.
In 2023, NIAMS issued funding opportunities designed to diversify the NIAMS research portfolio and enhance biomedical research into understudied groups. These include funding opportunities to accelerate research into understudied skin types and to conduct research on the health of women who belong to understudied, underrepresented, and underreported populations. These, and other funding opportunities like them, can go a long way to helping us better understand health disparities and advancing health equity for all.
In addition, in the spring of 2023, NIAMS welcomed its first-ever Chief Diversity Officer, Dr. Robert Walker, Jr. Dr. Walker guides the Institute’s activities to improve scientific diversity, health equity, and disparities in research.
Looking Forward to Another Great Year
I continue to be wowed by the hard work of NIAMS staff and researchers and the dedication to making NIAMS successful. I also want to thank our community and patient advocacy group partners for your enthusiastic support of the NIAMS mission and for your valuable input into the development of our new NIAMS Strategic Plan. I appreciate that many of you took the time to respond to our latest request for information, and I am excited to see your feedback. Please keep an eye out for more research and funding opportunities in the coming year, especially at the intersection of pain and autoimmune and rheumatic diseases, and subscribe to our monthly funding newsletter for the latest updates.
To conclude, I want to take a moment to welcome our new NIH Director, Dr. Monica Bertagnolli. Dr. Bertagnolli first joined the NIH in October 2022 as director of the National Cancer Institute (NCI), bringing over three decades of experience as a researcher and cancer surgeon with her. Now as NIH Director, I know she is committed to engaging equally across all the institutes and centers. I hope you will all join me in giving Dr. Bertagnolli a warm welcome!
Looking forward to all that’s to come in 2024.
Lindsey A. Criswell, M.D., M.P.H., D.Sc.
Director, National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases