Outgoing NIH director Dr. Francis Collins makes case for advanced research component

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The National Institutes of Health could potentially fast-track certain research projects if it created a new component of the NIH called the Advanced Research Projects Agency for Health, the outgoing director of the nation's medical research agency told the Journal of the American Medical Association in a recent interview.

The interview, published Dec. 1, hits on an array of topics with Francis Collins, MD, PhD, who announced in October that he will leave his role as NIH director by the end of 2021.

When asked why the NIH needs the Advanced Research Projects Agency for Health, Dr. Collins told JAMA: "It's basically taking the DARPA [Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency] approach of being really willing to invest significant funds in high-risk projects and not being surprised if a lot of them fail, and doing so in a fashion that's quite nimble, can move quickly and can bring to bear collaborators who might otherwise not be."

He added that some projects surface that "could make a big difference to human health" but aren't "amenable to the usual grant mechanisms that we support."

"These are often big, sprawling projects involving multiple collaborators, many of whom would never write an NIH grant, especially if they happen to be small businesses with a particular technology, for instance," Dr. Collins told JAMA.

He went on to make the case for a new component of the NIH by referencing how a project might be completed quicker and with easier collaboration.

"People have been working on vaccines for cancer, but it's a slow process because the cycle time for developing a vaccine and seeing whether it provides benefit is pretty long. mRNA really shortens that," Dr. Collins told JAMA "So suppose we were to contemplate making messenger RNA vaccines against all of the common mutations that happen in solid tumors? Would that be a fantastic way to prevent most solid tumors? I don't know. That might be something that would get explored five years from now, but with an [Advanced Research Projects Agency for Health] we could do it a lot faster."

A physician-geneticist, Dr. Collins has served as NIH director for 12 years. Once he leaves the role, he will continue to lead his research laboratory at the National Human Genome Research Institute, part of the NIH. 

Read the full JAMA interview here

 

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