Francis Collins The health of our nation is good, better than it has been for decades. But it could be better. The scientific approach to understanding the causes of disease offers us a hope of real revolutions in improving our own health and that of our families and friends.
Francis Collins is the director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH.) The NIH is the largest supporter of biomedical research in the world, he said, with an annual budget of $31 billion. Dr. Collins spoke of NIH priorities for the next five years.
Francis Collins: The first of those is to apply some of the very new and very exciting high-throughput technologies.
Collins is referring to cutting-edge robotics that can conduct millions of lab tests at once to get a comprehensive understanding of how disease occurs.
Francis Collins: We can go from having snapshots about biology and medicine, to having really comprehensive views that are going to change the landscape in dramatic ways, for cancer, for autism, for diabetes, on down that list.
He also spoke of health care reform in the U.S.
Francis Collins: We are clearly attempting to re-engineer our health care system to result in better outcomes and lower costs. But we need data. And NIH, by running clinical studies to look at what works and what doesn’t work, can inform that in really important ways.
Other priorities for the NIH are global health and support for the next generation of young scientists to go into biomedical research. Dr. Collins spoke more about what the National Institutes of Health is and does.
Francis Collins: Our goal is to try to improve the health of the nation and of the world, and to try to give more people the chance to live full lives without being interrupted by health challenges.
He told EarthSky that the NIH is the largest supporter of biomedical research in the United States.
Francis Collins: In fact, it’s the largest supporter of such research in the world, with an annual budget of 31 billion dollars. We support hundreds of thousands of scientific researchers, at institutions all over the country. We also support research overseas, particularly in areas where things that we could not do within our own borders are still important to learn about.
Many people are familiar with the NIH’s role in developing new medicines, which can be a difficult process, said Collins.
Francis Collins: This is a very complex process, and a very expensive one, and it’s failure-prone. The good news is that the basic science discoveries that are happening, many of them just in the last couple of years, are pointing us to very new drug targets for cancer, for diabetes, where we didn’t previously quite know how we should design our therapies. Now we have a much better sense of that. But knowing what the target is a long way from actually having a drug that the FDA has approved to give to people as part of their care. That means bringing together the expertise that exists in all of the sectors and speeding up that process and improving the success rate.
The scope of the work of the NIH, said Collins, goes far beyond the borders of the United States.
Francis Collins: We recently held a meeting to bring together all the groups that support research on global health to see where are the areas that are not well-covered, where are the emerging areas of challenge. Many of the diseases that we think of as those of western society are now being imported, sadly, to the rest of the world, and needs our help there as well. With climate change, we should also realize that some of the conditions that we’ve considered as being regulated to certain parts of the world, like dengue fever for instance, are now becoming more common in areas that might ultimately effect people who live in the United States.
Dr. Collins spoke with EarthSky about the role of recent federal stimulus money in improving the health for people in the US.
Francis Collins: The recovery act was aimed to try to get America back on its feet economically. It included 10 billion dollars of support for NIH research. Every dollar that NIH gives out in grants returns $2.25 in terms of goods and services, within just one year. And jobs are supported. We estimate that that particular money coming from the recovery act will support or retain 50,000 high-quality jobs of the kinds that we don’t want to lose and we don’t want to have migrate overseas. Those dollars had to be spent in a two-year period, because that was the intention of getting the economy back on track. And one of my greatest anxieties, something that wakes me up at night, is the concern over whether we might lose the momentum that has been started by those two years of extra funding. Science is not a 100-yard dash. It’s a marathon. And the kinds of projects that we support rarely get done in a 2-year period. Just the same, this is the reality that we’re dealing with at this difficult time for the economy.
Our thanks to the National Institutes of Health, part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.