Research grants program closing

October 08, 2003

ARLINGTON, Va., Oct. 9, 2003--The Whitaker Foundation has awarded its final research grants totaling $10 million, ending 27 years of support for young investigators in biomedical engineering.

The final 44 awards were divided among 34 colleges and universities across the United States.

The Biomedical Engineering Research Grants Program, which began at a time when there was little funding available for engineers in medicine, has helped establish the careers of 1,660 biomedical engineers, who have mentored more than 13,000 students.

Whitaker investigators have created more than 200 products and devices and started more than 100 health technology companies, according to a foundation survey. They have secured nearly 400 patents and licenses.

Research supported by the grants has resulted in numerous medical devices and treatments that are widely used, including heart-assist pumps, defibrillators, and tools for image-guided surgery.

Whitaker investigators have unlocked secrets of the immune system, developed prototype artificial arms controlled by thought waves, produced the most sensitive PET scanners, and have been on the forefront of cutting-edge research in cellular, molecular, and tissue engineering.

"The legacy of the Biomedical Engineering Research Grants Program will be a generation of bright and productive investigators who will carry the field forward with advances in basic and applied research," said Whitaker Foundation President Peter G. Katona, Sc.D. "These investigators, in turn, will educate and inspire the next generation of biomedical engineers."

The foundation has invested a total of $153 million in this program since it began in 1976. Back then, the field was young and did not fit well within the established grant-making structures of the federal government, the nation's largest sponsor of academic research. There was also limited support from private funding sources.

In those early days, biomedical engineering--a blend of engineering, science and medicine--was understood by federal funding agencies as a collection of its components rather than a unique mix. The National Institutes of Health would see biomedical engineering grant applications as being too engineering oriented, while the National Science Foundation would say they focused too much on medicine.

As the field became more widely accepted and young investigators found it easier to obtain federal grant support, the Whitaker Research Grants Program shifted its emphasis from research ideas to career development. The goal was to start biomedical engineers out on long and productive research careers. A larger share of grants went to investigators with academic appointments in departments of biomedical engineering or bioengineering.

Recently a number of public and private organizations have stepped up support for biomedical engineers. The National Institutes of Health, for one, has created a new National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering. The Howard Hughes Medical Institute's new $500 million research facility near Leesburg, Va., will bring together biomedical engineers, chemists, physicists, and computer scientists, to create new technologies. The W.M. Keck Foundation has put $40 million into a program that will bring together researchers in science, technology and medicine.

The Biomedical Engineeirng Grants Program, the foundation's oldest and largest, began with a single award to Penn State University for research on the mechanical heart pump. The award supported William Pierce, M.D., who was struggling to obtain funding. With the grant, he used the heart pump to wean patients off the heart-lung machine after surgery. Today the left ventricular assist device is widely used as a bridge to transplant surgery and has been federally approved as a permanent implant for some patients.

"It has a significant usefulness and most every group in the world that has a heart transplant program has our pump, which has its roots in our Penn State lab and the Whitaker funding," the retired Pierce said recently. "We've been very proud of that, and there have been a lot of lives saved as a result."

A host of other medical and scientific products and devices have resulted from Whitaker funding, including prosthetic implants, drug delivery systems and bioengineered tissues. Whitaker investigators have also expanded the field into exciting new areas, such as cellular and molecular engineering and nanotechnology.

The Whitaker Foundation was established in 1975 upon the death of U.A. Whitaker, the founder of AMP Incorporated. The Harrisburg, Penn., company grew to become the world's largest manufacturer of electrical connectors and connecting devices.

In 1991, the foundation made the decision to invest all of its assets in accelerating the emergence of biomedical engineering as a mainstream academic discipline. So far, it has invested more than $720 million in the field.

At the height of its grant-making, the foundation supported the creation and enhancement of biomedical engineering departments, including building construction and renovation projects. The foundation supported the creation of 38 new departments of biomedical engineering and supported major enhancements to dozens of other biomedical engineering departments and programs.

The foundation gave grants for independent research, graduate fellowships, industrial internships, summer internships, the creation of textbooks and other teaching materials, cost-reducing medical technologies, special opportunities for advancing the field, and biomedical engineering-related conferences and meetings.

For the next three years, the foundation will manage existing grants, convene research and education meetings, and conduct program assessments. In 2006, The Whitaker Foundation will complete its mission and close.

Whitaker Foundation

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