With an assist from Big Pharma.
Francis Collins, the gregarious 67-year-old who directs the National Institutes of Health, doesn’t shy away from a challenge. Collins made a name for himself in the early 2000s when, as director of the Human Genome Project, he oversaw the completion of sequencing 3 billion genes. Now, as the head of the nation’s foremost biomedical research engine, Collins faces a new task: finding solutions to the opioid epidemic, which killed more than 33,000 Americans in 2015.
At the Prescription Drug Abuse and Heroin Conference last month, Collins announced a public-private partnership, in which the NIH will collaborate with biomedical and pharmaceutical companies to develop solutions to the crisis. President Donald Trump and Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price “strongly supported” the idea, he said. This isn’t Collins’ first such partnership: During his tenure as director—Barack Obama appointed him in 2009—Collins has developed ongoing collaborations with pharmaceutical companies such as Lilly, Merck, and GlaxoSmithKline for Alzheimer’s disease, diabetes, and rheumatoid arthritis. For each partnership, the NIH and the companies pool tens of millions of dollars, with the agreement that the resulting data will be public and the companies will not immediately patent treatments. The jury’s still out on results—the partnerships are about halfway through their five-year timelines. But Collins, a self-described optimist, remains hopeful. “Traditionally it takes many years to go from an idea about a drug target to an approved drug,” said Collins at the conference. “Yet I believe…a vigorous public private partnership could cut that time maybe even in half.”
I talked to Collins about the partnership, potential treatments in the pipeline, and the NIH’s role in confronting the ongoing epidemic.
Mother Jones: Why is a public-private partnership needed?
Francis Collins: While NIH can do a lot of the good science, and we can accelerate [it] if we have resources, we aren’t going to be the ones making pills. Many of the large-scale clinical trials are not done generally by us but by the drug companies. A successful outcome here—in terms of ultimately getting rid of opioids and the deaths that they cause—would not happen without full engagement by the private sector.
MJ: Which companies will be involved?
FC: It will be a significant proportion of the largest companies. I can’t tell you the total list—as I said, the 15 largest were there. Certainly the groups that already have some drugs that are somewhere in the pipeline will be particularly interested in ways to speed that up.
MJ: What do you hope will come out of it in the short term?