Friday, September 16, 2011

NIH director outlines opportunities in biomedical research

GUARDEDLY OPTIMISTIC: Collins addresses researchers

FRANCIS S. COLLINS, MD, PhD, director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), did not come to the MGH to stress the current economic outlook for research, but the topic appeared to be on everyone’s mind in the packed Simches Research Center conference room Sept. 9.

NIH spending surged dramatically between 1998 and 2003, but has since flattened, Collins said, and further significant resource constraints may lie ahead. “I’m guardedly optimistic,” he reported. “The message we are sending is that research is a really important investment for human health and the economy. It creates jobs and stimulates American competitiveness.”

That message has been enthusiastically received by the Obama administration, Collins noted, and over the past few months he has met with some 53 members of congress and 14 senators to hammer it home.

“Don’t worry too much about the course we are on,” Collins advised researchers. “We may be at a rough and tumble moment, but there is a sufficiently critical mass of people who wish us well. Just keep going and don’t stop now. ”

What Collins did come to speak about were “exceptional opportunities in biomedical research.” He devoted most of his talk – which was sponsored by the Executive Committee on Research – to outlining the multifaceted efforts of NIH to advance both basic and clinical research, a list that included accelerating discovery through technology, looking at better and more efficient ways to speed the development of new drugs, promoting collaboration between researchers and industry, and developing new ways to design clinical trials.

The presentation was studded with examples from specific NIH projects, including the Cancer Genome Atlas, which aims to catalog genetic mutations responsible for cancer; initiatives to explore the use of existing compounds “repurposed” to treat other diseases; and efforts to make the most of the Clinical and Translational Science Awards consortium, a network of clinical and translational NIH grant recipients at 60 sites in 30 states and the District of Columbia, including the Harard Catalyst program.

Collins also described his proposal for a new center that would focus on the frustrating process of developing new cancer drugs. The process, according to Collins, currently takes about 14 years and has a failure rate of 98 percent. Likewise, Collins pointed to the preclinical trial phase, sometimes known among researchers as “the valley of death,” where animal testing to determine drug toxicity is the most common reason for drug failure. “It doesn’t work that well. Is there a better way?” he asked. His answer is yes, and the NIH is hard at work exploring ways it might be done.

Last but not least, Collins stressed the importance of supporting early-stage clinical investigators and identifying ways to increase the diversity of the scientific community.  “We take these issues very seriously,” he noted.

Collins ended his talk by describing research – some of which is in progress here at the MGH – on the rare but debilitating disease called progeria, which causes the rapid acceleration of aging in children. While the disease may be extremely rare, knowledge about normal aging and general health that the work is developing is both exciting and extremely useful, said Collins. It is a point, he noted, that the public needs to understand.

“So be bold,” he told the assembled researchers. “Be innovative.  And try some wacky ideas from time to time – we at NIH like to see that!”

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