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Collins Tells Congress NIH Budget Will Pay Off

By a GenomeWeb staff reporter

NEW YORK (GenomeWeb News) – National Institutes of Health Director Francis Collins went to Capitol Hill today to express his support for President Barack Obama's proposed 2011 budget for the institutes.

Collins told the House Committee on Appropriations' Subcommittee on Labor, Health, and Human Services that NIH plans to use the proposed $32.2 billion in funding next year to push the edges of biomedical research, to support the next-generation of young scientists, and to continue making the kinds of discoveries that have made American lifespans dramatically longer in recent decades.

Collins pointed the committee toward NIH research in genomics, personalized medicine, and stem cells research as some of the approaches the institutes are using to pursue knowledge about, and treatments for, a number of diseases.

He also echoed the remarks of his predecessor, Elias Zerhouni, who said that biomedical research is "a race that we cannot afford to lose."

But, he added, "Science is not a 100-yard dash. "It is a marathon – a marathon run by a relay team that includes researchers, patients, industry experts, lawmakers, and the public."

"Although we have accomplished much, and as tempting as it may be for NIH to rest upon its laurels, we all know that biomedical research still has an enormous amount of ground to cover before discovery is turned into health for all Americans," Collins said, adding that more than one person in the US dies every minute from cancer.

Collins told the subcommittee, which is chaired by Dave Obey (D – Wis.), that when he arrived at NIH in 2009 he surveyed anew the agency where he had already spent 15 years directing its genomics efforts.

"I found many of the most exciting opportunities could be grouped under five main themes: taking greater advantage of high-throughput technologies; accelerating translational science, that is, turning discovery into health; helping to reinvent health care; focusing more on global health; and reinvigorating the biomedical research community," he said.

In his following testimony, Collins pointed specifically to genomics research as a central tool for pursuing NIH's disease research goals, a toolkit that has led to some success already and which will continue to be important in ongoing programs.

A decade ago, he said, "cancer treatment was mostly reactive, diagnosis was based on the organ involved, and treatment depended on broadly aimed therapies that often greatly diminished a patient's quality of life. Today, basic research in cancer biology is moving treatment toward more effective and less toxic therapies tailored to the genetic profile of each patient's cancer," Collins added.

He told members of the subcommittee that researchers working on the Cancer Genome Atlas — a project launched in 2005 by the National Cancer Institute and National Human Genome Research Institute — will build comprehensive maps of the key genomic changes in 20 major types and subtypes of cancer.

"Already, TCGA has produced a comprehensive molecular classification for ovarian cancer and glioblastoma, the most common form of brain cancer," Collins said, adding that the glioblastoma findings could lead to therapies that are directed to the newly discovered molecular changes that underlie different subtypes of the disease.

"Meanwhile, other NIH-funded researchers are busy uncovering information about genes and environment that may pave the way for more personalized, targeted strategies for controlling weight and preventing diabetes. For example, in just the past few years, we have identified more than 30 genetic risk factors for type 2 diabetes," he continued.

Collins also said that genes and environment studies will directly address the "longstanding medical puzzle" of the causes of autism. "One ambitious effort will involve sequencing the complete genomes of 300 people with autism and their parents," he said.

While fielding questions from members of the subcommittee, Collins said that the $10 billion in stimulus funding from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 was "a wonderful investment in medical research."

The funding "came at a time when there was a pent up need" for support at NIH, but he said that the two-years of support in 2009 and 2010 "does create some stresses and we are going to be experiencing those stresses in" fiscal-year 2011.

Regardless, he lauded the funding, saying that NIH dispersed grants to all 50 states, and he said that it supported many major efforts including TCGA, the Framingham Heart Study, HIV/AIDS research, autism genome sequencing efforts, and pandemic flu research.

Collins also was asked how the well the US is competing with other countries in generating new research talent. He replied that the US is doing "okay, but not great," adding that the EU, India, and China could surpass the US.

He said that when he speaks with young researchers he finds them "concerned about their futures but enormously energized about the scientific potential."

Collins also pointed out that the 2011 budget includes a six percent increase in stipends for post-doctoral trainees. Although not a massive hike in stipends, "the news of at least a proposed increase was a big morale boost" for young researchers who are still seeking their first grants and are sizing up the prospects for careers in research, he said.

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