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Vol. LXIV, No. 3
February 3, 2012
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‘Welcome to a Grand Adventure’
NCATS Holds First All-Staff Meeting, Others Expected

On the front page...

NIH director Dr. Francis Collins and NCATS acting deputy director Dr. Kathy Hudson
NIH director Dr. Francis Collins and NCATS acting deputy director Dr. Kathy Hudson
It was with a sense of excitement and relief that NIH director Dr. Francis Collins and the 7-person leadership team of the new National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences assembled Jan. 4 in Masur Auditorium for the new entity’s first all-staff meeting.

Many employees of the former National Center for Research Resources, which has been subsumed by NCATS, arrived by bus from off-campus sites for the meeting.

“This is one of the most exciting things that’s happened at NIH in a very long time, and you are at the heart of that,” said Dr. Thomas Insel, acting director of NCATS and director of NIMH. Acknowledging a period of disruption, uncertainty and “hardship for all of us” that preceded establishment of NCATS, he said the meeting was the first of several gatherings to assure “that we’re all working on the same team.

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“We want to tap into your creativity, your ideas and your expertise…so that wonderful things can happen,” said Insel, who expressed relief that the “cone of silence” that had prevented the sharing of more details was finally lifted on Dec. 23 when NCATS was formally enacted in law.

“Welcome to a grand adventure,” said Collins. “We haven’t done something like this at NIH in a long while, maybe not ever…We know we have the right people assembled to make [the NCATS mission] happen…We are a new player in this busy field, and a powerful one.”

Collins called the dearth of new medications in the pharmacological pipeline “a vexing problem, ripe for revolution.” The failure rate for new small molecules as potential therapies is greater than 99 percent, he said, and it takes about 14 years for a new compound to gain approval. Combined with an average cost of $2 billion per success, the challenge constitutes “a huge problem to look at,” he added.

Dr. Thomas Insel Dr. Chris Austin and Dr. Josephine Briggs
From l: Dr. Thomas Insel, the new acting NCATS director, addresses employees. Joining him onstage at Masur Auditorium were Dr. Chris Austin and Dr. Josephine Briggs.

“The time is ripe for a new paradigm,” he said, assuring that “the drug companies are ready for a new era of open access.”

Collins said, “The pipeline itself is a scientific problem…If we continued down the same pathway, the dismal statistics would continue.” Until now, he added, “there has not been a hub for this kind of engineering attitude about the pipeline itself.”

Like Insel, Collins acknowledged the audience’s uneasiness. “I’m sure all of you are feeling both excitement and uncertainty—we understand that.”

Insel introduced the new center’s leadership, which assembled onstage beneath a slide of the NCATS organization chart. Erin Shannon, former NCRR executive officer, is now NCATS’s acting executive officer. Dr. Jane Steinberg of NIMH is now acting director of the NCATS Office of Grants Management and Review. Dr. Steve Groft continues as director of NIH’s Office of Rare Diseases Research, now a part of NCATS.

Dr. Kathy Hudson, who is NIH deputy director for science, outreach and policy, will serve as acting deputy director of NCATS and acting head of the center’s policy, communications, technology transfer and strategic alliances operation.

NCATS has two divisions. The Division of Preclinical Innovation is headed, on an acting basis, by Dr. Chris Austin, who is also director of NHGRI’s NIH Center for Translational Therapeutics. The new Division of Clinical Innovation will be headed, again on an acting basis, by Dr. Josephine Briggs, who directs NCCAM.

“This is an invitation to do things a little differently,” said Insel, “not just the same entity with a new name…the best science is our emphasis.”

NIH director Dr. Francis Collins (second from r) poses with the NCATS leadership team, including (from l) Dr. Steve Groft, Dr. Jane Steinberg, Erin Shannon, Austin, Briggs, Hudson and Insel.

NIH director Dr. Francis Collins (second from r) poses with the NCATS leadership team, including (from l) Dr. Steve Groft, Dr. Jane Steinberg, Erin Shannon, Austin, Briggs, Hudson and Insel.

Photos: Michael Spencer

Hudson said she has been “dreaming about this day for months” and been “kept up many nights” worrying about whether NCATS would gain approval. She briefly described three initiatives NCATS has already undertaken: an effort to rescue/re-purpose existing drugs that may have efficacies unforeseen by their developers; pre-clinical toxicity testing of compounds, or so-called “human tissue on a chip,” with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency as a partner; and a target-validation project in which many ICs will collaborate to identify drug-able targets.

She also announced the debut of the NCATS web site at www.ncats.nih.gov.

Insel assured the new NCATS workforce that everyone will be paid on time, will report to the same supervisors they had prior to Dec. 23 and will remain in their same workplaces, at least for now. He said Collins would be able to select a new NCATS director from an outstanding list of candidates and anticipates other recruitments as well.

NCATS will borrow the NIDDK council on a short-term basis to approve outlays during the interim while an NCATS council and the CAN (Cures Acceleration Network) board recruit members. The NCATS grant code will move from “RR” to “TR” and program officers will be the same for NCATS as for NCRR “in almost every case,” Insel added.

“It’s kind of nice that the launch of NCATS meshes with the beginning of a new year,” he noted. “We know that there will be some trial and error.”

The 90-minute session ended with about a dozen questions from the audience. Collins said he is hoping that NCATS breeds “a new synthesis of perspectives” and a “new scientific culture…the traditional extramural-intramural divide is not statutorially impenetrable, although many think that it is.” Insel divulged that NIH retained the services of a headhunter in the search for an NCATS director and said the prime criterion is someone “with a real passion for this area of science.” Hudson said she will “rely on everybody in this room to be ambassadors for NCATS.”

“This is just the beginning for us,” concluded Insel, who said the new leadership team would be making the rounds of the new center within days. “You have lots of additional colleagues that you didn’t have before Dec. 23.”


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