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A Conversation With Francis Collins

The NIH director answers questions about a new brain health initiative and more

Francis Collins, NIH Director, Conversation With Francis Collins


National Institutes of Health Director Francis Collins.

En español l The director of the National Institutes of Health, and a past recipient of the AARP Andrus Award, talked to the Bulletin about the nation's new BRAIN initiative and the Human Genome Project that he directed.

Q: What is new and exciting at the National Institutes of Health?

A: One of our biggest projects is the BRAIN initiative, which I had the opportunity to introduce with the president at the White House last spring. The acronym stands for Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies. Basically, we are bringing together the best and the brightest people from a variety of disciplines to figure out, over the next 10 years, exactly how the brain works.

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Q: What is the goal?

A: You could say that we currently have a low-resolution picture of how the brain functions. We can look at individual brain cells to see what they're doing, but that doesn't tell us about the circuits and networks in the brain, and how they work. The goal of the BRAIN initiative is to better understand the way the brain processes information and how it lays down memories and retrieves them. Being able to do this will provide the foundation for our understanding of brain health, and ultimately, how to prevent disease.

Q: Why such a focus on brain health right now?

A: Because science is making it possible. Ten years ago, I don't think we could have started down this road with the confidence that we can actually figure this out. There have been huge advances in the past three or four years. But let me say that, as exciting as this is, it is just a small part of what NIH is doing in neuroscience. We are also pursuing ideas about how to prevent and treat diseases such as Alzheimer's, autism, Parkinson's, epilepsy, schizophrenia.

Q: It's been 10 years since the Human Genome Project mapped the first complete human DNA sequence. What impact has the project had?

A: We've made substantial advances in some areas. Take what we've learned about cancer. We've now looked at the genome of tens of thousands of cancers, and we are learning the ways in which a good cell can go bad. We are learning how to intervene, not with the chemotherapy that basically kills any cell that is dividing — which means it has a lot of toxic side effects — but with targeted therapies that only hit the cancer. Personalized medicine is the wave of the future.

Q: Have you had your own genome analyzed?

A: I have, and I discovered that my DNA suggested my risk of diabetes was about 50 percent higher than the average person. That was not the answer I wanted — this was a little over four years ago.

Q: Did you make any changes to your lifestyle?

A: It did motivate me. Until then, my own health maintenance wasn't particularly impressive. I was not following any exercise program. I was prone to zipping down to the snack bar and buying a honey bun. So I did get into an exercise program, and I started watching my diet. I lost 30 pounds.

Q: Do you advise people to get their DNA tested?

A: Well, you can now do it for around $1,000, which is amazing, given that it cost $400 million 10 years ago. But unless you're dealing with a specific disease, it can be pretty hard to interpret. One genetic test everyone can do is to learn their family medical history. That's a genetic test — and it's free.

Q: Speaking of money, I know you're concerned about NIH funding.

A: NIH is the largest supporter of biomedical research in the world, but we are losing our edge. Since 2003, we've seen a steady decline in support, down to about 25 percent below where we were 10 years ago in terms of our power to fund research. This is putting great stress on scientists who have great ideas but who are having a hard time getting funded to keep their labs going. Grant proposals that come in to us where people have put forward their best and brightest ideas, only about 1 in 7 of those is actually getting funded. This year, finally, there is a bit of an uptick in funding.

Q: You've dedicated your life to science, but do you make time for yourself?

A: The evidence is fairly compelling that people need ways to let off steam. Music is a particular passion of mine. So yeah, if I've had a tough day, I'm likely to walk in the door and sit down at the piano and see what happens. Or pick up my guitar, or take a ride on my Harley. Those are good outlets. They are clearly good for your mind, good for your soul.