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Vol. LXV, No. 24
November 22, 2013
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Collins Advises NIH Fellows to Persevere When Going Gets Rough

NIH director Dr. Francis Collins addresses attendees at first annual NIH Clinical Fellows Day.
NIH director Dr. Francis Collins addresses attendees at first annual NIH Clinical Fellows Day.

Stick with it. That’s the principal advice NIH director Dr. Francis Collins gave attendees at the first annual NIH Clinical Fellows Day held Oct. 25. He shared lessons he learned during his clinical fellowship with 130 clinical fellows in Lipsett Amphitheater.

In 1981, Collins, trained as an internist, and with a Ph.D. in physical chemistry, became a clinical fellow in human genetics at Yale School of Medicine. He initially studied a new cloning vector that was supposed to allow purification of large segments of human DNA. At first, the fellowship did not go as planned. “The project was a disaster. After 6 months, I had to abandon the entire idea, and I had nothing to show for it,” Collins said. But he stuck with research—and 3 years later, he published his first paper in human molecular genetics.

“I tried to learn from my mistakes. I had to ask myself how did this happen? What should I have thought about earlier?” Collins remembered. “Happily, the next project went a lot better.” He advised fellows to be on the lookout for rare cases with no treatments. Often rare diseases shed fundamental light on human biology. During his fellowship, Collins met Meg Casey, a young woman who carried the diagnosis of Hutchinson-Gilford progeria syndrome, an exceedingly rare progressive disorder that causes children to age rapidly. Progeria affects roughly 250 children worldwide.

“I felt very much like I wanted to do everything possible to help her, but there was very little anyone could do and very little known about this disease,” said Collins. Casey passed away before the cause or any hope of a treatment could be discovered.

The day included a town hall meeting featuring panelists (from l) Dr. Frederick Ognibene, director of the Office of Clinical Research Training and Medical Education; Dr. Robert Lembo, deputy director of that office; Dr. David Henderson, Clinical Center deputy director for clinical care and associate director for quality assurance and hospital epidemiology; and CC director Dr. John Gallin.

The day included a town hall meeting featuring panelists (from l) Dr. Frederick Ognibene, director of the Office of Clinical Research Training and Medical Education; Dr. Robert Lembo, deputy director of that office; Dr. David Henderson, Clinical Center deputy director for clinical care and associate director for quality assurance and hospital epidemiology; and CC director Dr. John Gallin.

Photos: Ernie Branson

Years later, in 2001, Scott Berns, a White House fellow, introduced himself to Collins at a reception. Berns told Collins that his son had progeria. Berns and his family visited Collins at NIH. Collins believed that advances in technology could make it possible to find the progeria gene. Two years later, Collins’s research team found the gene. And just 4 years after that, a clinical trial was initiated—with results published last year that show benefit from the treatment.

“As physician-clinicians, you have a chance to combine clinical experience with laboratory science. That can be a great joy,” he said.

Collins ended his talk by noting the importance of collaboration. “Science doesn’t work as a lonely enterprise,” he said. “Make friends, seek out mentors, look for the chance to team up with others.”

The day-long event also included career tips from successful NIH investigators, a fellows town hall meeting, a review of resources available to clinical fellows and a recounting of the origins of NIH’s response to the AIDS epidemic.


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