By Lauran Neergaard
Tuesday, August 18, 2009
An influential geneticist who wears his faith on his sleeve said that as the new director of the National Institutes of Health, he won't inject his religious convictions into medical research while pushing cutting-edge science into better bedside care.
"The NIH director needs to focus on science," Francis Collins told the Associated Press on Monday. "I have no religious agenda for the NIH."
In taking over the NIH on Monday, Collins -- best known for unraveling the human genetic code -- said that he wants the nation's premier research organization to have a practical focus. He also said that new discoveries might even help save health-care dollars.
"We should be completely bold about pushing that agenda," Collins said, not just for U.S. health but for global health, too.
"Here we are at a circumstance where I think our country is seeking maybe to redefine our image a bit in the world, from being the soldier to the world to being perhaps the doctor to the world. I'd like to see that happen," Collins said in an interview before greeting employees of the $30 billion agency.
The Bush administration drew criticism for allowing religious ideology to guide some decision-making, such as curbs on the NIH's funding of research involving embryonic stem cells.
Collins is well known for finding common ground between belief in God and science without letting his evangelical Christian beliefs influence his 15 years of research at the NIH. He led the agency's Human Genome Project, which, along with a competing private company, mapped the genetic code, which he called "the book of human life." Remarkably for Washington, Collins's team was ahead of schedule and under budget.
The folksy Collins, who explains the complexities of DNA in language the average person can understand, at the time called it "awe-inspiring to realize that we have caught the first glimpse of our own instruction book, previously known only to God."
He left the NIH last year to work with Barack Obama's presidential campaign and to help found the BioLogos Foundation, a Web site formed by scientists who said they want to bridge gaps between science and faith. Obama nominated Collins, 59, for the NIH post last month, and he was unanimously confirmed by the Senate on Aug. 7.
Collins said that he resigned from the Web site the day before assuming his new job and that he is proud of its work.
"I do think the current battle that's going on in our culture between extreme voices is not a productive one," he said. "The chance to play some kind of useful role in that conversation by pointing out the potential harmony was something that seemed to be making some inroads."
In a nearly empty office Monday, nothing yet unpacked on his bare desk, Collins outlined his goals for the NIH's next few years. Look for an emphasis on the new field of personalized medicine, which promises to use a person's genes to customize ways to stay healthy and fight disease rather than one-size-fits-all advice.
Thousands of breast cancer survivors, for example, undergo chemotherapy they don't need to be sure that the handful with aggressive forms of the disease are treated. New genetic tests are cutting back on the unneeded chemo and saving at least $100 million a year in health-care costs, Collins said.
Also look for an emphasis on stem cell research. Under President Obama's new policy on embryonic stem cells, which Collins helped develop, the agency is deciding which of the 700 known embryonic stem cell batches, or "lines," are eligible for taxpayer-funded research. Collins also marveled at another option: giving ordinary skin cells the regenerative properties of embryonic stem cells.
"Clearly there's a lot we don't know, a huge amount we don't know, about the therapeutic uses" of either type, Collins said. "We ought to be thinking of every creative way to speed up the agenda for testing" that.
He said he is excited about a new law pushing for academic researchers, including NIH scientists, to turn discoveries about rare or neglected diseases into potentially usable drugs by performing the risky, early-stage development that can deter drug company investment.
And new technologies, such as high-capacity computing and nanotechnology, are making it a powerful time to broadly study what makes diseases arise.
"This really does seem like a synthetic moment," he joked.
Collins's vision is to knock down a bit of the NIH's ivory-tower reputation in a bid for more openness with scientists and the public, so the gene-hunter who in the spring posed in cool shades as part of GQ magazine's campaign to bring celebrity to science is looking forward to an invitation to appear on "The Colbert Report."
After receiving a standing ovation from a community that he dubbed "the NIH tribe," he told employees, "It's great to be home again."