NIH Director Francis S. Collins gave the keynote speech at today’s Partnering for Global Health forum in Washington, DC, sponsored by BIO and BioVentures for Global Health. He spoke about why global health is a priority for the organization, and for the United States. For starters, Collins pointed out that recent scientific advances such as RNAi, small molecule screening, and genomics of pathogens, are allowing researchers and drug developers to fight infectious diseases. As a result, the pharma and healthcare sectors are able to look beyond the Big 3 diseases (HIV/AIDS, TB, and malaria) and pay more attention to neglected diseases such as dengue, as well as chronic noncommunicable diseases (e.g., hypertension, diabetes, cancers), which are growing in both developed and developing nations. Another reason that global health advocates are setting higher goals–and achieving more—than they have in the past has a lot to do the enthusiasm and global perspective of the younger generation, noted Collins. “We can tap into that energy,” he said.
Along these lines, NIH is leading the way in new and translational medicine. “We are repurposing and rescuing ideas,” he said. Many of NIH’s programs are searching through developed compounds that perhaps failed to treat one disease, but that may be useful in treating another. “NIH can play the role of a matchmaker in this regard,” he said. Partnerships are a key component of this work.
New technologies are paving the way for greater global health achievements as well, especially in more rural and remote areas. Take, for example pillboxes, connected to cellphone signals. Collins explained that, when a patient opens the box, it sends an alert to a medical practitioner who can monitor whether the patient is following his or her treatment regimen. Or take a lens-free microscope attached to a cellphone that can take a blood sample and send an image to a healthcare worker miles away. That healthcare worker can then decide whether medical intervention is needed without having to be on site.
To keep the ball rolling, so to speak, NIH recently started two new global healthcare programs. H3 Africa is a partnership with the Wellcome Trust in the UK that is using genetic and environmental risk factors to do research on infectious as well as noncommunicable diseases on the local level. The notion of exporting samples and doing R&D thousands of miles away is long gone. A second project is focusing on developing a healthcare workforce in Africa. It was clear at today’s keynote that Collins is passionate about his work. After all, he is the one who led the way with the human genome project. And from the enthusiasm present throughout today’s forum, I have no doubt that many more great things are to come.
Listen to our podcast interview with Dr. Collins.