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Vol. LXVI, No. 15
July 18, 2014
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NIH’s Common Fund Celebrates Its First Decade

On the front page...

Former NIH director Dr. Elias Zerhouni (l) and current director Dr. Francis Collins
Former NIH director Dr. Elias Zerhouni (l) and current director Dr. Francis Collins
The 10th anniversary of NIH’s Common Fund on June 19 provided an opportunity for current and past NIH leadership to explain the fund’s origins and celebrate its achievements. The event in Masur Auditorium included videos provided by creative scientists supported by the fund and a performance, at day’s end, by NIH director Dr. Francis Collins, of two fund-praisers: songs whose lyrics extolled the program’s virtues.

Collins introduced the day-long research symposium, which presented “a rich array of the science, stretching from basic to clinical” conducted by fund grantees. Among the early speakers was 2012 Nobel laureate in chemistry Dr. Brian Kobilka of Stanford, who presented results of two CF-supported studies on G-protein coupled receptors; such receptors account for more than 40 percent of all pharmaceutical industry research expenditures, he said.

Continued...

“It has been a pleasure and a privilege over the last 5 years [since he became NIH director] to see this program develop,” Collins said. Originally known as the Roadmap for Medical Research when it debuted in fall 2003, the effort began out of “a need to support science that doesn’t fit cleanly into the portfolio of any one of the 27 institutes and centers,” he explained.

“This was Elias’s brainchild,” said Collins, before introducing former NIH director Dr. Elias Zerhouni, whom he called “the father of this whole enterprise we’re celebrating today…He convinced people to open their wallets—and that’s not an easy thing to do around here. Tin-cupping [asking the ICs for voluntary contributions] was not going to work, and it was Elias’s crucial scientific and political skills” that made the Common Fund a reality.

Dr. Betsy Wilder, who has been with the Roadmap/Common Fund from the start, called it “a really amazing trans-NIH set of programs.” Dr. Dushanka Kleinman said that launching the program was “exhilirating, frightening and extremely rewarding.” Collins called the program “a wonderfully successful experiment.”

Dr. Betsy Wilder, who has been with the Roadmap/Common Fund from the start, called it “a really amazing trans-NIH set of programs.”

Dr. Dushanka Kleinman said that launching the program was “exhilirating, frightening and extremely rewarding.”

Collins called the program “a wonderfully successful experiment.”

Photos: Ernie Branson

Collins outlined four major Common Fund accomplishments:

  • Molecular libraries: Beginning in 2004 with a small-molecule screening program, the effort by 2014 has identified 390,000 unique and diverse compounds, resulted in 132 patented discoveries and found 365 probes, 7 of which are now in clinical development.
  • Microbiome Project: Launched in 2007, it builds on the surprising discovery that, in every human being, there are more of “them” than “us”—microbes outnumber human cells by at least 10 to 1. “That made us realize that we really are an ecosystem,” Collins noted, “and has become an international effort.”
  • The Patient Reported Outcomes Measurement Information System (PROMIS), a system of assessment tools that measure patient-reported health status, began in 2004. Collins called its web site (www.nihpromis.org) a rich collection of resources.
  • High-risk, high-reward NIH Director’s awards under Early Independence, New Innovator, Pioneer and Transformative Research categories. Collins said a new study has shown greater productivity from Pioneer Award winners than from those who earn traditional R01 grants. One-third of the Common Fund budget now goes to these awards, he said. Scientists funded by the awards provide “wonderful topics for my blog,” Collins added.

“A remarkably complex array of programs are now supported by the Common Fund,” Collins concluded, lauding the CF as “our venture capital space…From my perspective, this has been a wonderfully successful experiment…It has also led to rich collaborations across the institutes and centers that would not otherwise have occurred.”

Zerhouni rallied both scientific and political support for the Common Fund.
Zerhouni rallied both scientific and political support for the Common Fund.

Zerhouni, who is now president of global research and development at Sanofi, recounted how he had been recruited as NIH director from Johns Hopkins in 2002. “Within a week of my appointment, people were saying, ‘Zer-who?’ I thought I better come up with something to get some respect around here,” he quipped.

Convinced that “NIH needs to be a leader in where science is going,” Zerhouni recounted an intense summer of recruiting outside advice about how NIH could surmount barriers to scientific progress; the experience “told me there was a pent-up demand for leadership from NIH.”

Zerhouni said he was especially disinclined to go before Congress just to say, “Thanks for the doubling” [of the NIH budget, which occurred 1998-2003]. He was determined to excite Congress with a case built on scientific opportunity and a conceptual focus that became the Roadmap.

Zerhouni said he will write someday a detailed account of how his Roadmap vision was eventually embraced in legislation reauthorizing NIH in 2006—it won passage in a 2 a.m. vote—and insisted that the Common Fund “is not mine, and it’s not Francis’s, it’s ours.” The Common Fund has had global impact, he added: “There isn’t a country I go to that doesn’t mention it. NIH did good.”

A videocast of the entire symposium is available at http://videocast.nih.gov/summary.asp?Live=13974&bhcp=1.


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