by Kelli Hill
Francis Collins, MD, director of the National Institutes of Health, says the decision by Congress to give the NIH $2 billion in funding in the recent budget agreement is “such an inspiration for young scientists who have been feeling uneasy about their future.”
Collins sat down with Yahoo Global News Anchor Katie Couric at the Milken Conference in Los Angeles to discuss the impact of the Human Genome Project on medical research and the importance of science in today’s world.
“To have Congress make this clear of a statement is reassuring,” Collins said. Under the Trump administration, there was concern that funding for science programs would be cut. He added that his conversations with members of the administration “have been encouraging.”
Collins led the Human Genome Project team that successfully completed the mapping and sequencing of human DNA in 2003. “It’s simply been transformative,” Collins said about the success of mapping the human genome.
Since then, it has had a tremendous impact in the medical field, especially cancer. “Cancer comes about because of misspellings in DNA, but we really haven’t had the ability, until the genome project came along, to look at an individual tumor and say, ‘Well, what’s spelled wrong here and what could we do in terms of treating it?’” Collins said, “not in a one-size-fits-all chemotherapy approach but in something much more targeted, much more rational.”
Although the price of having a human genome sequenced has dropped significantly, Collins doesn’t suggest that everyone go out and get it done to improve their health care. Collins notes there is still a lot of information in the sequence that scientists haven’t yet figured out how to apply. “I think it’s still early days for people who are currently healthy to be able to know what to do with those 6 billion letters of DNA that you could get if you had your genome sequenced right now,” he said. “You could probably do a better job of sampling particular parts of the genome that you know are significant — the ones that are going to affect your risk of cancer, the ones that are going to affect whether a particular drug is the right drug or the right dose for you. We’re learning more and more about that.”
Collins also expressed concern about the debate about the role of ideology versus fact-based evidence in health care. “There’s a lot of noise out there, and part of the issue, I think, is it’s hard for people to figure out what is the authoritative source of that evidence,” he said. “There are a lot of other alternative facts out there about health that people need to be careful about in terms of how they interpret them.”