NIH director calls for investment

by Amelia Acosta | 11/4/10 11:00pm

Maximizing available resources and emphasizing innovative research exploration are crucial to determine what causes disease and to facilitate the creation of effective drugs, Francis Collins, the director of the National Institutes of Health, said in a Thursday speech "Exceptional Opportunities in Biomedical Research" at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center.

"We need to take advantage of new developments that have happened, many in the last few years, to understand fundamental biology at a deeper level than we have before, and use that information to uncover the causes of specific diseases," he said. "Scientists and clinicians are learning each other's languages, which is important if we're going to succeed in the therapeutic aspect of these issues."

To expedite the Food and Drug Administration's drug approval process, the NIH has developed a Joint Leadership Council, according to Collins, who said that the Council will "speed up the process of getting effective drugs approved."

"You can really stub your toe if you haven't thought of what the FDA is going to expect of you," Collins said.

Capitalizing on human potential in the field of biomedical research is a key priority for the NIH, according to Collins.

"We're working to establish pathways for scientists who are just getting into the field to make sure there's a career for them," he said. "We've got to encourage ideas that are risky and out of the box."

Several key developments in biomedical research in recent years, such as the Cancer Genome Atlas, are evidence of past successes in the field and the importance of investment in the future, according to Collins.

"One of many major projects at the NIH is the Cancer Genome Atlas, studying what makes a cell go bad in cancer pathways," Collins said. "This was initially a pilot project, but in the next five years, we will have discovered the underlying genomic and epigenomic causes of 20 different cancers."

Because of the increasing number of research opportunities, investment in research and the NIH has never been more important, Collins said.

"When you factor in the inflationary index, we're not any further along in terms of purchasing power than we were 10 years ago," he said. "This is in the face of many new opportunities in biomedical research."

Biology professor Thomas Jack hosted a webcast of the talk in Dartmouth Hall for students who were unable to attend the talk at DHMC.

The lecture was potentially complicated for undergraduates, according to Jack.

"He's a really excellent speaker very dynamic, a smart guy, and he's talking about a very interesting topic," Jack said. "At times he descended into using a lot of abbreviations and acronyms, mainly government acronyms. If you're not familiar with any of that stuff, it's easy to get lost."

The scientific aspect was a good supplement to in-class material for biology students, Jack said.

"This part of the talk was probably easier for students to understand," he said. "Collins talked about methods of treating diseases, looking at inhibitors and perfecting these molecules. This is a long and expansive area of work that we haven't studied yet, and this was probably very beneficial for the students."

Some students said they found the talk complicated, but comprehensible.

"I read [Collins'] book, and I feel like he's a really good role model in science," Janna Wandzilak '14 said. "For someone who was presenting to a bunch of doctors, I shouldn't have been able to understand anything, but I could kind of follow what was said, even as a freshman."