A world-renowned physician-geneticist, Francis Collins led the genomic revolution as director of the International Human Genome
Project and director of the National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI) at the NIH from 1993 to 2008. The HGP culminated
in 2003 with the completion of a finished reference sequence of the human DNA instruction book—an achievement that Collins
considers "the most ambitious and significant undertaking in biological sciences that humans have ever mounted"—on par with
splitting the atom and going to the moon.
Francis Collins, MD, PhD
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