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NIH director a 'rock star' of science

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NIH director Francis Collins
NIH director Francis Collins discusses one of his latest research projects, which identified a gene responsible for Hutchinson-Gilford progeria syndrome. The study has moved into clinical trials for a drug to treat the rare disease; the young patients in the study are pictured in the background.

Photo: Roberta Dupuis-Devlin

Francis Collins, the only director of the National Institutes of Health to play guitar in a rock band with a member of Aerosmith, brought his enthusiasm for biomedical science to an auditorium of current and future scientists Saturday afternoon.

Collins left his guitar back at the hotel — although he planned to bring it to the annual meeting of the American Physician Scientists Association later that evening.

But the future directions he outlined for the $31 billion, 27-part agency he leads were music to those in the crowd who gathered around afterwards to shake his hand, talk about their own research or ask for career advice.

Collins’ lecture was co-sponsored by UIC, Northwestern University and University of Chicago at Northwestern’s downtown medical campus. He asked organizers to encourage graduate students to attend.

“You’re like a rock star,” one young woman said as she asked him to autograph a booklet about the NIH after his lecture.

Collins took it all in stride, much as he did in the video clip that ended his talk — of his appearance on the “Colbert Report,” where he told host Stephen Colbert that, although stem cell research cannot yet fulfill Colbert’s request to have crab claws for hands, stem cells are now being used in clinical trials to treat spinal cord injuries.

After all, one of his goals for the NIH is “reinvigorating and empowering the biomedical research community,” said Collins, winner of the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the National Medal of Science.

This includes emphasizing diversity and reaching out to younger generations, from kids in K-12 through graduate school.

“We need to make it clear that a life doing research is very exciting, that science is not just for nerds,” said Collins, a physician-scientist who headed the National Human Genome Research Institute before he was nominated to lead the NIH by President Barack Obama last summer.

That’s why, he said, he appeared in a fashion photo shoot and concerts with Joe Perry of Aerosmith for Rock Stars of Science, founded by a philanthropic offshoot of Geoffrey Beene. The resulting music videos are available on YouTube.

He also invites e-mail to NIH-listens@nih.gov

Collins encouraged the audience to participate in National Lab Day, a grassroots initiative founded to make boost science and math education by connecting scientists, teachers and students.

“Sign yourselves up!” he said. “It’s an opportunity to show what science is all about.”

He advocated NIH initiatives aimed at young scientists, including a program that would give new Ph.D., MD and MD-Ph.D. graduates their own research labs and mentors, skipping years of post-doctoral training.

A new NIH policy gives special consideration during the peer review process to grants from new investigators (those within 10 years of completing their terminal degree or medical residency).

“The average age for a researcher getting their first NIH grant is 42,” Collins said.

“Now early-stage investigators can get a special leg-up — they’re not competing with established researchers.”

Because the peer review process favors established investigators and research that builds on already-established ideas, Collins said, he has also pledged to encourage innovation.

“All too often, the wacky ideas don’t make the cut,” he said. “So we now have programs (the Pioneer and New Innovator awards) where you can’t get in the door to be reviewed unless you have a wacky idea.”

Collins outlined other new directions for NIH.

With the development of new technology, “we can ask comprehensive questions about biology and medicine that have the word ‘all’ in them,” he said, like “What are all the components of the immune system?”

“This may be seen as ‘big science,’ but these are organized efforts that make it possible for everybody to go faster — to make sure data is immediately accessible.”

Translational research is the bridge that will take basic science discoveries to the development of new and better treatments, said Collins, a physician-geneticist whose research has identified genes responsible for cystic fibrosis, neurofibromatosis, Huntington’s disease and type 2 diabetes, among others.

Although this has been primarily the work of the private sector, “opportunities now allow us to do more of this in the academic environment,” he said. “We need to provide resources and access to the tools that academic researchers didn’t formerly have.

The NIH also has a role in “putting science to work for the benefit of health care,” said Collins, a colleague of Chancellor Paula Allen-Meares as a member of the Institute of Medicine and former professor at the University of Michigan.

This includes research on health disparities, comparative effectiveness of different treatments, personalized medicine and prevention, and the economics of health care, Collins said.

He also favors a greater focus on global health.

“We have a special opportunity, a responsibility,” he said. “Our country has been known for its exercise of hard power. How about smart power?”


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