Q&A with Francis S. Collins - Inside the National Institutes of Health - BioPharm International


Q&A with Francis S. Collins
Inside the National Institutes of Health

BioPharm International Supplements
Volume 24, Issue 9, pp. s4-s10


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.

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