NIH Director Collins Has Music for Physician-Scientists' Ears

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At a town-hall style meeting with scientists, health advocates, and other “constituents” on Wednesday, Dr. Francis Collins, the new director of the National Institutes of Health, cast himself as a symphony conductor of sorts, hoping to “encourage the music to rise up in a way the whole world will hear.”

That was part of a broader sweet-sounding refrain, particularly since Dr. Collins listed global health as one of five priority areas where he wants NIH to “push the ball forward.”

He noted that many of the diseases afflicting the developing world, such as HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis, are well understood and easily treated. The hurdles come in making therapies available in developing-world settings, where capacity and resources are scarce. But with the right partnerships, Dr. Collins said, “We believe this could move forward.”

More broadly, Dr. Collins called on the scientific and physician communities to make their voices heard in the policy arena, so that NIH can continue to expand research opportunities and push a robust “innovation agenda.”

“I need your help,” he said, “… to propagate a common and consistent voice in support of the importance of medical research.” He said health advocates needed to have compelling stories that convey how medical research “changes lives” and to think of new ways to relay that message to policymakers in Washington.  

In addition to global health, Dr. Collins listed four other priority focus areas:

*applying genomics and other “high throughput technologies” to understanding fundamental biology and uncovering disease causes

*translating basic scientific discoveries into new and better treatments, i.e. bridging the “yawning gap” between research and drugs

*putting science to work to benefit of health care reform

*and “reinvigorating and empowering” biomedical research

Dr. Collins did not offer too many specifics on his global health agenda, which ranked No. 4 in Wednesday’s presentation. Asked about the threat of HIV/AIDS at home and in the developing world, he said it was “one of our most important priorities” and talked about an “ambitious research agenda” at NIH to curb the epidemic, in the absence of a vaccine, with tools such as PrEP and microbicides.

Mark Harrington, of the Treatment Action Group, asked Dr. Collins if he would be a forceful advocate for “multi-year increases” in the NIH budget, starting with $40 billion in FY2011, when the stimulus funding will dry up. Dr. Collins said those figures were “within the realm,” but added: “That’s about as far as I can go.”

In a bid for more openness and cultivating new lines of communication, Dr. Collins invited audience members to send NIH a summary of issues their advocacy organizations think he and other NIH leaders should have on their radar. (You can send your 2 cents to

“I promise you I will pay close attention to it,” Dr. Collins said. “No one can whistle a symphony, but maybe I’m a bit of a conductor here.”

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