Yet, back in the early '90s, Collins recalls there were "great uncertainties about whether this project was going to succeed or not." The technology wasn't there and had to be invented. Collins served as "field general" for a team of some 2,500 biologists and physicists, robotic experts, and computational scientists, and "we agreed to go for broke." The NIH project attracted private-sector competition—and debate over what roles government and industry should play in this monumental endeavor. But Collins now considers the "race" useful because it attracted attention to a project that had been largely ignored. And unlike its private competitor, the publicly funded genome project gave away all the resulting data, a policy decision that Collins considers "one of the most significant contributions of the entire project." Investigators all over the world were able to use the information long before the human genome sequence was completed, and some pharma companies supported this by funding specific projects and agreeing to release data immediately.
Collins still hears complaints that the genome project overpromised because "here we are in 2011, and medicine has not been utterly revolutionized." Yet, the impact of genome sequencing on biomedical research already is "astounding," he says. The project provided tools for DNA sequencing, making it possible to uncover the molecular causes of thousands of diseases. "We have learned many new things in the last 10 years about how biology works, and now are moving to develop medical applications."Parlaying the genomic revolution in science into new diagnostics and therapeutics for patients is Collins' current goal as head of the National Institutes of Health. It distresses him that it still takes 14 years for a basic research advance to travel through the development pipeline to become a new medicine, and that more than 90 percent of initial test compounds fall by the wayside during this long and costly process. He wants NIH to work with FDA, industry, academia, and other stakeholders to revolutionize the science of translation.
A major step toward realizing this vision is to establish a new NIH entity, the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences (NCATS), which will collaborate with industry and others in an atmosphere of precompetitive transparency. "NIH doesn't want to compete with the private sector at all," Collins emphasizes. He sees NCATS working with its partners to identify development bottlenecks and innovative technologies and approaches to reduce them. NCATS will serve as "an honest broker between companies that have a compound and investigators with new ideas about new applications."
In these tough economic times, Collins believes that pharma companies are looking for new models, new partnerships, and new ideas about how to improve the chances for success and to speed up the development process. With industry facing a significant downturn in income, NIH suffering from budget uncertainties, and academia threatened by reduced NIH support, Collins sees an opportunity to build "a new kind of partnership that could be very interesting." Despite all the obstacles, he says this is the "right time to look at these remarkable scientific opportunities, to roll up our sleeves, and to get it done." – Jill Wechsler