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Personalized medicine: At DDT, NIH’s Zerhouni makes case for new roads to discovery

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Late this summer, NIH Director Elias Zerhouni gave the opening keynote address at the annual Drug Discovery Technology conference held in Boston, where he called on attendees from pharma, biotech, and the public sector to make inroads into the critical problems facing the drug discovery field.

“I think people underestimate our ignorance of these [biological] systems,” he told his audience. Noting the major public health challenges — 75 percent of the disease burden today is chronic disease, and emerging infectious diseases and obesity are rapidly becoming major healthcare issues as well — he reiterated some key components of his now-familiar “roadmap” for advancing biomedical research. Those include new pathways to discovery, new types of research teams, and an overhauled clinical enterprise, he said.

Discovery needs “better and more tools,” Zerhouni said, adding that bioinformatics, nanomedicine, and structural biology will be critical to that movement. Biological data of the future, he added, will have to be more complex than ever before, adding layers and layers of more detailed information. The idea of discovery itself needs to be broadened, he said, with “[expanded] concepts of assays, targets, and compounds.”

NIH is doing its part to help with that. Starting this month, Zerhouni said, the agency would launch a public database of chemical interactions and compounds, dubbed PubChem. NIH has also proposed starting up a program of Regional Translational Research Centers, which Zerhouni called “the crucible for new ideas.” These centers would strive to be multidisciplinary, heavily interactive research environments pairing basic science with clinical research and incorporating various elements such as biostatistics, pharmacogenetics, and genomics. That would in theory facilitate the kind of “larger, coordinated research sharing” that Zerhouni argues is essential to the future of discovery and improved healthcare overall, he said.

— Meredith Salisbury

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