FUNDING AND DEVELOPMENT
BioPharm: Do you think at some point you'll be able to recruit development partners in industry, such as any Big Pharma companies?
Collins: Oh, absolutely! I think already we're having some pretty interesting conversations with leaders of big companies about ways
that we could work together in some areas that currently tend to be slow and inefficient.
One example is, how do we actually determine whether a new potential drug is safe to give to humans? Right now the way that
that is done, as a sort of preclinical toxicology, depends upon the use of animal testing which is expensive, slow, and often
not very reliable. We have a program already underway called Tox21, with 21 representing the 21st century, that is jointly
done with FDA and EPA [the Environmental Protection Agency]. We're looking at potential environmental toxins and also with
drugs to see if there are better ways that are higher throughput, depend upon human cells as opposed to other animals, and
give a reliable signal about whether a compound is safe or not.
The Tox21 project is, I think, a good start in the direction of what could be a totally new science of doing preclinical toxicology
in the era of having human cells that could be engineered into three-dimensional organoids.
BioPharm: You mentioned funding, and there has been some debate recently regarding the NIH grant program for small businesses. The
Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program has been authorized by Congress until Sept. 30, 2011, but there are still
disagreements in Congress about how venture capital affects those grants and the qualification of companies. In your opinion,
what is best in that regard for drug discovery and development? Are there certain things you'd like to see happen with that
particular bill and the program?
Collins: NIH has a long track record of supporting small businesses in a very productive fashion. We can point to some fairly major
successes there that have resulted from that kind of starting support for the early phase of a company's development. Take
the company Affymetrix, which has been a leader in the area of microarrays. That whole company was started on an SBIR grant
and is now valued at quite a lot of money.
We could point to other examples as well. NIH's perspective is that we would like our SBIR dollars be used for projects that
have the greatest chance of ultimately resulting in public benefit. Consequently, to have companies excluded on the basis
of the amount of venture capital involved in their startup doesn't always make sense. So we are looking forward to seeing
that limitation relaxed a bit because I think it has excluded some companies that might have been really good grantees. Obviously,
that's a topic that's on an ongoing discussion on the Hill.