NIH Director Francis Collins recently sat down with Newsweek to discuss, among other things, his continued hope in the promise of the human genome.
Prior to becoming NIH head, Collins was a leader of the genetics revolution in the U.S., helping guide the Human Genome Project and fostered an outpouring of new research into the way that genetics influences disease. However, Craig Venter, recently named one of Time's People who Matter in 2010, has argued that the Human Genome Project produced close to zero in terms of discoveries that can help sick people.
"A substantial list of medical advances have occurred in the last 10 years [thanks to the genome project], but they have not directly affected the medical care of most people so far because they're mostly about rare conditions," says Collins. He provides the example of a genome-based analysis used to assess whether a woman's breast cancer has been cured by surgery and radiation or if she requires chemotherapy. It is being used this year by 50,000 women, a large number of whom will conclude they don't need that chemotherapy. "And that's saving our health-care system $100 million this year," Collins points out.
And despite fears that the NIH's $30 billion budget is vulnerable because of the GOP takeover of the House, Collins doesn't seem to share their concerns. "The Republican Party has been in many past times at least as enthusiastic about medical research as the Democrats," Collins explains. "We can document that a dollar that NIH gives out in a grant returns $2.21 in goods and services to the local community in one year, which is better than most investments. So if you're trying to get the economy back on its feet, this is a great way to do it," he adds.