RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK, N.C. – The enormity of what happened at Duke University during its 75th anniversary science symposium on Tuesday didn’t strike home with me until I put together a story about the $25 million in venture capital that Air2Web announced that same day.

At about the same time, Duke University Health System announced that it was setting up a $280 million fund for medical research and education at its schools of medicine and education.

That is more money than was invested in all of the venture capital deals made across North Carolina in the first six months of this year. And 2006 is shaping up to be the best year for venture capital in the state since 2001.

In fact, Duke’s fund is not that much smaller than total venture investments in 2004 ($323 million) and 2003 ($349 million).

Talk about giving a boost to R&D – Duke is doing it.

Here’s another point of comparison: The university’s School of Medicine pulled in $349.8 million in federal National Institutes of Health money in 2005. That was good for fifth place nationally, according to recently released NIH statistics.

So a tip of the hat goes to Victor Dzau, chancellor of health affairs at Duke and chief executive officer of the Duke University Health System, and those responsible for such a magnificent gift.

Hopefully the funds will lead to additional discoveries to fight the war on cancer and other diseases – from new medicines to technology. The growing number of spin-offs across the region utilizing technology developed at Duke such as Illuminus, which is seeking to commercialize breast cancer diagnostics technology are proof that investments offer rich rewards – financially and in terms of health.

Dzau chose to announce the fund at the science symposium, which drew four former Nobel Prize winners and focused on forthcoming inventions.

“Duke is one of the nation’s leaders in basic biomedical research and in developing innovative ways of treating cancer, heart disease and many other medical problems,” Dzau said in a statement. “To continue that tradition of innovation, we need to train physicians, nurses and scientists who are the most skilled in their fields, and we need to support research that leads to discoveries that transform science and save lives.”

The money comes from reserves set aside by the health system and reflects what the university called “strong investment performance”.

The fund will focus on what Dzau called “discovery science” focused on molecular level research, “translational science” that applies new discoveries and technology to further research, and “health disparities research” to examine such factors as race and poverty in disease. (Duke’s recently established Global Health Institute is pursing the health disparity issue as well.)

New scholarships will also be created in the Medical Scientist Program.

The Duke conference, which concludes today, was titled “Science’s Next Great Idea.” How appropriate for Duke’s own next great idea to be announced at such a gathering.