Francis S. Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, talks about the institutes' global partnerships, innovation strategies, small-business funding, and plans for personalized medicine.
Editor's Note: The following is an excerpted transcript of an interview that took place in June 2011 between Francis S. Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), and BioPharm International's Senior Managing Editor Angie Drakulich, in preparation for the Biotechnology Industry Organization's (BIO) annual convention and Partnering for Global Health Forum, which was cosponsored by BioVentures for Global Health. Dr. Collins is noted for his landmark discoveries of disease genes and his leadership of the international Human Genome Project. The full recorded interview can be listened to at BioPharmInternational.com.multimedia/.
GLOBAL HEALTH PARTNERSHIPS
Collins: Yes, in figuring out what were the themes that offered the greatest opportunity for progress in term of NIH research, I spent a lot of time speaking with experts, seeking advice, and trying to identify areas that would fit as being exceptional opportunities. Global health clearly emerged as one of them and certainly resonated with my own desires to see advances in medical research benefit not only people in high income countries but also throughout the world.
I do think, scientifically, the arguments are pretty compelling that this is a unique time for assisting that process through NIH research. After all, we're making discoveries about the nature of pathogens that cause infectious diseases, that suggest new ideas about vaccines and therapeutics. And I think we have increasing abilities also to look at noncommunicable diseases in new ways and try to interrupt what otherwise is going to be a cycle in which those cause an increasing amount of morbidity and mortality throughout the world.
When I came to this position in August 2009, I convened almost right away a major gathering of organizations that fund global health research to try to get a better handle on who's doing what and where the gaps might be. And that was quite instructive because there are a lot of players doing a lot of interesting things, and it's not trivial to figure out exactly where the opportunities lie.
There are two projects that have come out of that discussion that are now underway and that ... I think are going to be interesting. One of those is what's called the Medical Education Partnership Initiative [MEPI], which is now funding academic institutions in 12 countries, a total of 30 institutions, to build capacity, both for medical education and for research. We're doing this jointly with [the US President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief], PEPFAR.
Eric Goosby [the US Global AIDS Coordinator] and I have agreed that this is a shared area of real importance for that part of the world, and the kickoff of the MEPI program occurred in March  in Johannesburg. It was very exciting to see how all of these investigators coming from institutions all over the continent—many of whom have never really been invited to come to the same meeting together and learn from each other—are really now going to be given a chance, with NIH support and support from PEPFAR, to build that kind of capacity.
The old model in which global health research is done by institutions in high-income countries and then sort of offered up to low-income countries has done good things. But in the future, we'd like to see that research capacity built in the countries where the medical needs are great, and I think we have a chance to do that through programs like MEPI.