The Building Block of Drug Discovery - Pharmaceutical Executive


The Building Block of Drug Discovery
Director Francis Collins sees NIH as a catalyst for translating biomedical innovations into effective therapies, but skeptics fear it's harder than it looks. It's all in the DNA of its partnerships

Pharmaceutical Executive

In fact, a critical task for Collins this year is to convince Congress to provide healthy funding for NIH amidst plans to cut federal outlays. Flat NIH budgets during the last decade created a huge pent-up demand for funds, which quickly absorbed the extra $10 billion provided by the 2009 stimulus package. Even though the White House sought a 3 percent increase for NIH for 2011, Congress never approved it, and most federal agencies are currently operating at last year's funding levels. Analysts at Deutsche Bank predict that NIH budgets will remain flat, while investment in science and basic research is on the rise in Europe, and even more in China.

Collins pressed for Committee approval of the new translational sciences center in December 2010 to be able to include it in the administration's 2012 budget plan and thus obtain initial funding this fall. But the lack of new money for NIH means that most of the $700 million that would be needed to support translational sciences will have to come from existing funds. That makes the research community nervous, as well as pharma companies that want NIH to continue its focus on basic research. Richard Klausner, former director of the National Cancer Institute and now a biotech venture capitalist, is skeptical of a larger shift of NIH resources to translational medicine. "NIH research should provide a better understanding of human pathology and its relation to disease and treatment, he says, and "then translation will occur."

Academia and Industry: Kissing Cousins
Many observers note that translational medicine and public/private partnerships are not new to NIH. The agency's previous director, Elias Zerhouni, launched the NIH Roadmap Initiative to speed biomedical discoveries from the bench to the bedside. The Foundation for NIH (FNIH) has bred numerous industry collaborations with individual NIH Institutes for more than 10 years (see sidebar).

Yet, little translation of biomedical research will happen if the private sector does not detect a positive climate for new drug research based on basic economic calculations around risk versus benefit in committing large sums of money over long periods of time. Collins says the role for NIH is to "de-risk" the process of drug development and to leverage its own human and financial capital to foster better partnerships with Big Pharma and biotech.


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