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New NIH chief: Turn science into better care

/ Source: The Associated Press

The researcher who helped unravel the genetic "book of human life" took the helm of the National Institutes of Health Monday, promising a faster push to turn cutting-edge science into better bedside care — especially care that can save precious U.S. health-care dollars.

"We should be completely bold about pushing that agenda," NIH Director Dr. Francis Collins told The Associated Press — and not just for U.S. health, but for global health, too.

"Here we are at a circumstance where I think our country is seeking maybe to redefine our image a bit in the world, from being the soldier to the world to being perhaps the doctor to the world. I'd like to see that happen," Collins said in his first interview, shortly before greeting employees of the $30 billion agency.

The NIH is the nation's premiere medical research agency, and until last year Collins had spent 15 years there — ultimately leading the Human Genome Project that, along with a competing private company, mapped the genetic code. Remarkably for Washington, Collins' team was ahead of schedule and under budget.

The folksy Collins, who explains the complexities of DNA in language the average person can understand, at the time called it "awe-inspiring to realize that we have caught the first glimpse of our own instruction book, previously known only to God."

Indeed, Collins is known for finding common ground between belief in God and science. He left NIH last year to, among other things, work with President Barack Obama's campaign — and to help found the BioLogos Foundation, a Web site formed by scientists who said they want to bridge gaps between them and the public.

Collins said Monday he will not inject his religious convictions into his NIH role.

"The NIH director needs to focus on science," said Collins, noting that he resigned as BioLogos' president the day before assuming his new job. "I have no religious agenda for the NIH."

Still, Collins, 59, said he was somewhat sad to leave his new foundation.

"I do think the current battle that's going on in our culture between extreme voices is not a productive one," he said. "The chance to play some kind of useful role in that conversation by pointing out the potential harmony was something that seemed to be making some inroads."

In a near-empty office Monday, nothing yet unpacked on his bare desk, an eager Collins outlined his goals for the NIH's next few years, and topping that list is faster translation of science into practical care.

Look for an emphasis on the new field of personalized medicine, which promises to use someone's genes to customize ways for them to stay healthy and fight disease, rather than today's one-size-fits-all advice.

It is already starting. Thousands of breast cancer survivors undergo chemotherapy they don't need in order to be sure the handful with particularly aggressive disease are treated. New genetic tests are cutting back on the unneeded chemo, and saving at least $100 million a year in health care costs, Collins said.

Also look for an emphasis on stem cell research. Under President Barack Obama's new policy on embryonic stem cells, which Collins helped develop, the agency now is deciding which of the 700 known embryonic stem cell batches, or "lines," are eligible for taxpayer-funded research. But Collins also marvels at another option, giving ordinary skin cells the same regenerative properties of embryonic stem cells.