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NIH Director Dr. Collins Stresses Power of the "Genetic Signature" to Develop Personalized Treatments in his First Appearance Before the House Energy and Commerce Committee

Legislative Update
June 16, 2010


NIH Director Francis
Collins, M.D., Ph.D.
On June 15, National Institutes of Health (NIH) Director Francis Collins, M.D., Ph.D. was the sole witness at a hearing entitled NIH in the 21st Century: The Director’s Perspective held by the Subcommittee on Health of the House Energy and Commerce (E&C) Committee, which is chaired by Cong. Frank Pallone (D-NJ). The E&C Committee, which has authorizing jurisdiction over the NIH, spearheaded the last Congressional reauthorization of the NIH through the NIH Reform Act of 2006. In his written and oral statements, Dr. Collins provided a status report on NIH activities, including those specifically mandated in the 2006 reauthorization. Dr. Collins’ appearance before the E&C Committee-his first as NIH Director-followed his April 28 and May 5 appearances in hearings held by the Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education (LHHS) Subcommittees of the House and Senate Appropriations Committees, respectively, on Fiscal Year (FY) 2011 NIH funding.

In his initial statement, Subcommittee Chairman Palone observed that Dr. Collins’ appearance was "sandwiched" between hearings on the Gulf oil spill. In that regard, Dr. Collins announced that the NIH’s National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) has committed $10 million of its FY2010 funding to study the respiratory, immunological, and neurological health implications of workers exposed to the oil. NIEHS, which is developing this database in conjunction with other federal agencies such as the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), plans to maintain and analyze these data long-term.

Dr. Collins departed from his written statement, offering numerous examples of how identifying an individual’s "genetic signature" will facilitate more effective personalized medical treatments. He described how he was working closely with Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Commissioner Margaret Hamburg, M.D. through the newly formed NIH/FDA Joint Leadership Council to prepare the regulatory process to deal with these new research findings. He also responded to numerous questions about embryonic stem cell research, noting that 73 cell lines are now approved for NIH-funded research, with more than 100 other lines currently being reviewed by NIH.

The issue of funding and NIH’s concomitant priority-setting process was the subject of many questions. Dr. Collins responded that it is optimal for science to drive the process with due consideration of disease burden and cost. He emphasized that NIH’s two-tiered peer review system-reflecting scientific excellence of investigator proposals balanced with NIH’s programmatic needs-has served the nation well, stating that "it is a complex calculus that should be best done by scientists." He did acknowledge the importance of funding basic science, which is the backbone of discovery, while aggressively pursuing the translation of research, offering up numerous examples of the latter.

Dr. Collins’ written statement had two sections that relate specifically to the vision community:

  • In the discussion of chronic disease, especially as a result of the aging process, he reported that NIH funded research at the National Eye Institute (NEI) into age-related macular degeneration (AMD) has ensured that 1.3 million Americans at risk for severe vision loss over the next five years can receive potentially sight-saving therapies.

  • In reporting on the status of the 2006 reform legislation-mandated initiatives, he acknowledged that NIH’s Scientific Management Review Board (SMRB) was currently addressing organizational questions related to the management of research on substance use, abuse, and addiction and carrying out a comprehensive review of the role and structure of the NIH intramural program, including the Clinical Center. On May 18, NAEVR Executive Director James Jorkasky testified before the SMRB urging it to consider the implications for the actual research being conducted by an Institute before recommending a merger or budget clustering.
In commenting on the hearing, James Jorkasky made the following statement:

"As in the appropriations hearings held earlier this year, Dr. Collins was an articulate spokesman for the value of science, generally, and the value of the NIH, specifically, in terms of the promise to treat disease, to save and improve lives, and to reduce healthcare costs."