With a nod to Star Trek, Francis Collins’ speech at the annual BIO conference, “Genome Research, The Next Generation,” gave credence to NHGRI’s journey into uncharted territory. Beyond reiterating the institute’s published goals for the future, as laid out in an April paper published in Nature, Collins emphasized getting NHGRI — and NIH as a whole — to participate more actively in early-stage drug discovery through a planned NIH-wide chemical genomics intiative.
The details of the initiative are still in flux, but Collins told the audience assembled at BIO that a public-sector initiative in chemical genomics “would be timely,” given the rapid development of resources and technologies such as combinatorial chemistry, extensive compound libraries, and robotic screening — not to mention the Human Genome Project itself.
“Am I suggesting that all NIH researchers become drug developers? No,” he said. But he added that the institute could play a significant role in developing assays to screen for potential drug-like compounds, and at the very least use small molecule compounds as reagents in experiments designed to investigate disease mechanisms. “From a public science perspective, instead of siRNAs, we could use chemical probes [to study biological pathways],” he said.
Collins said NIH Director Elias Zerhouni shares his desire to see public-sector science play a larger role in early-stage research that could lead to new drugs. And to do so, he admitted that the institutes would have to file for intellectual property rights to preserve the possibility of licensing compounds to commercial drug developers. “With small molecule efforts, we’d have to capture the IP early on, or else we’d have a lot of molecules that no one [in pharma] wants to touch,” he said.
The development came out of the NIH-wide road-mapping exercise, Collins told GT, adding that he expected more concrete announcements regarding the initiative “in the next month or so,” following BIO’s meeting in early June. “We at the genome institute are extremely interested in helping move that forward,” he said.
— John S. MacNeil