Senate panel mulls NIH drug development plan

Lawmakers have started discussing the details of a drug development program at the NIH, and Director Francis Collins says he's eager to get started--once the program has a budget. Collins appeared before U.S. Senate Committee for Appropriations' Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, and Related Agencies Subcommittee last week to elaborate on the new NIH program and getting lab research into the clinic.

Last year, Sen. Arlen Specter (D-PA) introduced legislation--the Cures Accleration Network (CAN) Act--that he said would help bridge the chasm between basic scientific discoveries and new treatments. As ScienceInsider points out, Specter helped insert CAN--without any funding--into the health reform bill. The law authorizes a $500 million budget for CAN, which would disburse grants of up to $15 million.

Specter has said CAN would help advance many biomedical discoveries with the potential for development beyond scientific journals. The problem is apparently so widespread that researches have coined the term "the valley of death" to describe why promising discoveries--such as genes linked to cancer and Parkinson's disease--languish in the laboratory. Collins said during Senate testimony that there is a lot of enthusiasm at NIH about the network. "Not that NIH would become a drug development company," he added, but instead it would form "partnerships" with the private sector that "are really exciting and unprecedented."

The $500 million would be enough to support 20 drug development projects "from soup to nuts," and another 20 projects using compounds that companies had abandoned, by "repurposing" them, Collins said. NIH also would have flexibility it doesn't have now "to manage projects in very forward-looking ways" with a "quick turnaround," ScienceInsider notes.

"In the world I envision just a few decades from now, we will use stem cells to repair spinal cord injuries; bioengineered tissues to replace worn-out joints; genetic information to tailor health outcomes with individualized prescriptions; and nanotechnology to deliver therapies with exquisite precision. I also dream of a day when, in ways yet to be discovered, we will be able to prevent Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, and other diseases that rob us much too soon of family and friends," Collins said in prepared remarks.

But Collins explains to ScienceInsider that he would "love to start out with a fully aggressive schedule" for CAN and that waiting a year would be "frustrating." NIH can't even hire staff members to run the program until Congress approves a budget. "Much depends on what these guys and their friends in the House [of Representatives Appropriations Committee] decide," he adds.

- see Specter's statement on CAN
- check out ScienceInsider's coverage
- click here for links to the Collins' testimony and a webcast