Francis Collins is on the cusp of something big. Several somethings big.
Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, told journalists about a number of possible breakthroughs in clinical and policy breakthroughs during the Association of Health Care Journalists annual conference in Philadelphia.
“This is a golden era in terms of understanding disease,” Collins said. “But there is still a daunting gap between fundamental knowledge and application of that knowledge.”
The NIH, he said, is trying to take an aggressive approach to converting academic advancements to practical accomplishments.
“We’re trying to look at the process itself as a scientific problem,” Collins said. “We’re trying to focus on the scientific approach in facilitating development of products and ideas.”
That means potential breakthroughs in many areas of clinical research — in curing medical conditions and disease in new ways. But it also means breakthroughs in more organizational areas, Collins said.
Many of those ideas are percolating at PCORI, he said — the Patient-Centered Outcomes Research Institute. The institute conducts research on best available evidence, to help providers make decisions more efficiently and with the most recent data. The idea is that patient quality would rise and costs would decrease when physicians don’t order unnecessary or improper tests, drugs or procedures.
One new kind of research has the potential to personalize drug prescribing, so clinicians can map an individual’s genetic makeup and use that to determine adverse drug reactions before prescribing anything.
“The NIH has a new opportunity to look at phenotypic genomics, which is a way to provide rapid turnaround for a real-world problem, so we can look at a new drug [being prescribed] for a patient and see if there’s a bad reaction.”
By moving from a hunt-and-peck approach in drug prescribing to a more targeted and informed approach, he said, it would likely save a lot of time and expense — and could also save lives, by averting some fatal drug reactions.
Collins also has high hopes for all of the possibilities of the HMO Research Network (HMORN). It is designed to act as the liaison for study development and implementation across multiple government agencies, as a sort of clearinghouse for study information. HMORN also is tasked with developing a Virtual Data Warehouse, where data from three different research collaborations across the country can be compared. That includes data such as enrollment, demographics, tumor registries and other medical content.
Add in the advancements and looming breakthroughs in many areas of clinical research, and Collins said he expects the next few years to be an extremely productive time for medical research applications, despite the recent funding reduction of about 1% of the NIH budget.
“This is a time where we have the most exciting opportunities we’ve ever had,” Collins said.