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NIH director’s Discovery Lecture covers biomedical research landscape

Jun. 4, 2015, 8:34 AM

National Institutes of Health (NIH) Director Francis Collins, M.D., Ph.D., spoke about the NIH’s research funding program during last week’s Flexner Discovery Lecture. (photo by Anne Rayner)

Last week in Langford Auditorium, Francis Collins, M.D., Ph.D., director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), delivered what he referred to as a “romp through an awful lot of the landscape of biomedical research.”

His talk, now posted on the web, was part of the Vanderbilt University Medical Center Flexner Discovery Lecture Series.

Collins devoted the hour to an outline of the NIH’s varied research funding program.

Individual NIH research grants are awarded based on what he described as “the toughest peer review system in the world.” He said 53 percent of NIH research funding goes for basic science research, and the rest goes for “applied” science.

Noting that NIH funding has dropped markedly over the past dozen years, Collins said recent signals from Capitol Hill give him hope that Congress will soon act to reverse this decline.

Collins said that genomics represents a major area of investment for the NIH. In terms of uncovering molecular causes of disease, “at least at the diagnostic level, we’re getting there,” and researchers now have “a pretty good idea of the menu of mutations that drive cancer,” but currently available drugs still cover only a small fraction of diseases with known molecular causes. Drug development has slowed over recent decades, prompting the NIH to begin working with the drug industry to spur broader and faster development of new therapies.

He said research into the human microbiome, that is, microbial communities found at human body sites, is “helping us to think of ourselves not as an organism but as a super-organism,” and is resulting in new understanding of disease and new treatments.

Collins said biomedical research has caused an explosion of data, and assured his audience that the NIH is giving careful attention to how these data can best be stored and made permanently available for reuse by researchers.

He ended with notes on the precision medicine research initiative announced earlier this year by President Obama, which he said “might be transformative for our understanding of health and disease.”

Along the way Collins singled out several Vanderbilt programs for special mention, including the BioVU DNA repository, the Meharry-Vanderbilt Alliance, the Vanderbilt Institute for Clinical and Translational Research, the Vanderbilt Center for Neuroscience Drug Discovery, the Vanderbilt Institute for Integrative Biosystems Research and Education and VUMC’s work on undiagnosed diseases.

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