April 27, 2010

NIH director talks science research, without the boring bits

Dr. Francis Collins has been known to make science “sexy” as a guest on The Colbert Report, where he twice tried to make science simple, engaging, and fun.

Collins, the director of the National Institute of Health (NIH), focused on unconventional approaches to science this Saturday at Northwestern University. The talk, sponsored by the University of Chicago in collaboration with Northwestern University and University of Illinois, Chicago, covered the progress made in the sciences in the last couple of years, as well as Collins’ aspirations for increasing innovation.

“The Chicago area received in this past year slightly over $1 billion of funding from the NIH,” Collins said. “I want to keep that relationship up and move science forward in a way that wasn’t even thought possible a few years ago.”

Collins outlined five key goals for the NIH he anticipates will invigorate the research community: Achieving a more comprehensive, fundamental knowledge of biology; translating novel scientific theories to practical treatments; putting science to work for the benefit of health care; promoting global health research; and invigorating and empowering the biomedical research community.

A former director of the Human Genome Project, Collins hopes to invest in “wacky ideas” or nonconventional theories that normally would be overlooked, he said. He believes that by taking risks, innovation can turn into very promising results in the near future.

He also emphasized scientists working together as one of the most efficient ways to do research and discover treatments.

Collins is doing research into finding treatment for Hutchinson-Gilford Progeria Syndrome. Individuals affected by the disease undergo symptoms of aging during childhood and most succumb to cardiovascular complications before their 13th birthday. Because the disease is so rare, not much is known about it, Collins said.

Progeria is known to occur in one in every four million births, and its rarity, along with the absence of genetic tracing of the disease, have made it particularly difficult to find a treatment.

But through collaborative work and accessibility to tools and prior research, scientists have made progress in developing a treatment for the disease. By working together, scientists are able to save money and time in helping individuals afflicted with diseases that would otherwise have no hope for any type of cure or treatment, Collins said. According to him, 28 patients are going through clinical trials for treatment for progeria, and the results so far seem promising.

Because of successes such as these, Collins advocated for more investment in scientific research, and greater accessibility for far-flung researchers. Collins wants to “make sure that we have training programs that reach out to diverse groups and innovative individuals [that] make biological research more appealing to disadvantaged groups and reach out to kids,” he said.

Members of the audience said they were concerned that the environment of the scientific research community was discouraging people from scientific research. “I’m just thrilled to be reminded about why I’m so excited about what we all have the potential to do,” a Northwestern graduate student said. “What concerns me and is upsetting is that many of my peers don’t feel the same way.”

Collins, however, said he was optimistic. “I think this is a unique time for biomedical research to go forward in very exciting ways. Deaths from heart disease have fallen by 60 percent in the last 30 years. You can track the results of NIH research as the main reason that has been possible over that timetable. And the cost of that in terms of what every American has paid for that research has come out to $3.70 per American per year. One latte would do it. Not a bad deal,” he said.

Collins said the NIH’s crucial role in supporting scientific research is evident. “If you ask, are we supporting great science,” he said, “you need only to look at the Nobel Laureates from last fall and notice how five out of six of them were in fact NIH grantees, and over the last many years, we have supported 131 people who have gone on to win Nobel Prizes.”