Would we have an Ebola virus vaccine if not for NIH cuts?

Dr. Francis Collins, the head of the National Institutes of Health, believes that we would have an Ebola virus vaccine if not for the past ten years of flat budgets for life science research:

NIH has been working on Ebola vaccines since 2001. It’s not like we suddenly woke up and thought, ‘Oh my gosh, we should have something ready here.’ Frankly, if we had not gone through our 10-year slide in research support, we probably would have had a vaccine in time for this that would’ve gone through clinical trials and would have been ready. (Source: Huffington Post)

I do understand that Collins needs to be a champion of life sciences research, but to promise that a vaccine would be ready by now is overly optimistic. Vaccines are not easy to design, as the efforts to make an HIV-1 vaccine illustrate. There is no guarantee that even unlimited resources would have produced an approved vaccine. However, more money might have allowed clinical trials of the Ebola virus vaccine candidates currently beginning phase I testing.

I believe that Collins should take the Ebola virus outbreak as an opportunity to emphasize the need for continuous, strong support of basic life sciences research. Michael Eisen, who is particularly annoyed with Collins’ statement, is right about what Collins should have said:

But what really bothers me the most about this is that, rather than trying to exploit the current hysteria about Ebola by offering a quid-pro-quo “Give me more money and I’ll deliver and Ebola vaccine”, Collins should be out there pointing out that the reason we’re even in a position to develop an Ebola vaccine is because of our long-standing investment in basic research, and that the real threat we face is not Ebola, but the fact that, by having slashed the NIH budget and made it increasingly difficult to have a stable career in science, we’re making it less and less likely that we’ll be equipped to handle all of the future challenges to public health that we’re going to be face in the future.

Don’t get me wrong. I get what Collins is trying to do. I just think it’s a huge mistake. Every time I see testimony from NIH officials to Congress, they are engaged in this kind of pandering – talking about how concerned they are about [insert pet disease of person asking question] or that and how, if only they could get more money, we’d be able to take make amazing progress. But guess what? It hasn’t worked. The NIH budget is still being slashed. It’s time for the people who run the biomedical research enterprise in this country to make basic research the center of their pitch for funding. Collins had a huge opportunity to do that here, but he blew it.

NIH head defends new center for translational science

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.

No basic science for NIH?

bacteriophageThe new director of the National Institutes of Health, Francis Collins, has been scrutinized for his Evangelical Christian beliefs, which some think might influence his science policy. But there may be an even more serious problem with his leadership of the biggest supporter of scientific research in the United States.

A recent New York Times article focused on Collins’ religious beliefs. The following statement, which was buried in the article, worries me much more:

While acknowledging the importance of basic sciences like biochemistry and genetics, he said he wanted scientists to consider clinical or therapeutic implications in their work. “We’re not the National Institutes of Basic Sciences,” he said. “We’re the National Institutes of Health.”

Since its inception, the NIH has supported both clinical research, the kind that can make us healthier, and basic research, which might not ever have a ‘payoff’. But basic research – letting scientists pursue what interests them – often leads to practical advances. One example is the work on bacteriophages, plasmids, and restriction enzymes, seemingly only of academic interest, that lead to the field of recombinant DNA technology.

It’s very easy to identify medically important problems – cancer, diabetes, heart disease – but who is smart enough to know which obscure area of research will lead to improvement of human health? Often the most important advances come from unexpected beginnings.

If the NIH reduces its support of basic science, who will step in to fill the void? Or will there be no more research on insect viruses (which lead to novel ways to synthesize proteins in cells), viruses that protect aphids from fatal wasp stings, and the diverse and abundant viruses of the seas?