NIH head defends new center for translational science

18 December 2012

Head of the US National Institutes of Health Francis Collins was asked some tough questions by a House of Representatives subcommittee examining the new National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences, NCATS.

The goal of the new center, opened in 2012, is to reduce the amount of time needed to develop new drugs, diagnostic tests, and medical devices. One concern, voiced by Representative Michael Simpson (R, Idaho)  is that the center will divert funds from basic research:

Can you ensure that the development of NCATS will not take resources away from basic sciences?

Colllins replied that the amount of money for NCATS is small. Which lead to an attack by Roy Vagelos, former CEO of Merck, who noted that the pharmaceutical industry spends far more money without solving the problems targeted by NCATS:

Does anyone in the audience believe that there is something that NCATS is going to do that the industry thinks is critical and that they are not doing? That is incredible to think that. If you believe that you believe in fairies.

Translational science takes the findings of basic research and applies them to practical problems. Without basic research there would be no translational science. Therefore it makes no sense to take funds from the former to support the latter. Especially when the funds are being used to support a translational center of questionable value.

  • Mark Fortner

    Interesting that Merck would be the one to respond, given that they (and most pharmas) are cutting back on basic research, and relying on insourcing, and academic partnerships to handle a lot of the early research.

  • Tony Mach

    Without having an opinion on the proposed translational center, I have to say this however:

    Science is process where different fields (“sub-specialities”) have to work together like a chain – and the weakest link will determine the outcome, not the strongest link. Investigating pathogens without having in mind that the target is alleviating disease and alleviating suffering in humans, that is a ivory tower exercise. As both the cost of diseases and the cost of research are supported by society, I think medical research (and fields connected to it) have a clear societal task to search for ways of reducing suffering caused by disease.

    Now I don’t know if this translational center is a way forward or backward, but I do know that the reductionistic focus on molecular biology research (that one see see for at least the last two decades) is a failure. Rolf Löther has written an interesting comment on this in his introductionary book to biology – unfortunately it is in German and I haven’t had the time to write it down and translate it.

    (Not to mention both Dobzhansky’s and Löther’s critique that biology needs to consider everything in its evolutionary context, or it will fail. Yeah, molecular biology uses BLAST on gene-sequences and what not, but it fails to look at an entire organism, and what its evolutionary environment is, what its environment today is. We need more people who “take a step back” and look at larger relationships, and we need more people bringing the knowledge together and bringing it to an application. Judging by the Nobel prizes, we don’t have a shortage of molecular research, but a shortage of practical applications – the Nobel Laureates may suffer from a selection bias though.)

    So, to make it short: I hope I use the right term, but this blog-post by you looks a bit like “Beggar Thy Neighbour” to me – “please don’t cut our funds, cut theirs instead!”.

    BTW: I have high confidence that the pharmaceutical industry creates products in their own profit interests, and I have zero confidence that their interests are identical to the interests of patients or society’s interests – but granted, there seems to be some overlap, depending on the amount of government oversight (which is far from enough, I’m afraid).