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Francis Collins At TEDMED – Repurposing Drugs, Replacing Animal Models, Rocking Out


You know you’re at an interesting conference when the director of the NIH starts off his presentation with a guitar duet, and shares a session with Cookie Monster.

But the organizers of TEDMED made a very deliberate decision in opening this year’s conference with Francis Collins. This is the first year that the gathering of medical luminaries, artists, and design gurus (TED stands for Technology, Entertainment, Design) is taking place in Washington, DC, after moving from San Diego. It marks a philosophical shift for the organization, from TEDMED as idea incubator to TEDMED as inserting itself into the national conversation on health and medicine. What better way to do that then bringing in the head of the biggest biomedical funding agency?

Collins wants to compress the time it takes to get a drug development pipeline, and make the pipeline less leaky. This isn’t news to folks around the pharma blogosphere, including here at the Haystack, Ash at Curious Wavefunction and Derek Lowe, who’ve followed last year’s announcement of NIH’s venture for drug discovery, the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences.

Folks have expressed some concerns about the concept, and its emphasis on the promise of gene-based drug discovery. But, as Derek noted, the fact of the matter is that everyone in drug discovery wants the things Collins wants, so there’s a measure of goodwill for the venture too.

Collins spent his time on the TEDMED stage emphasizing two things: drug repurposing and developing high-tech cellular solutions to supplement and replace often-imperfect animal models.

On the tech side, Collins showcased the Harvard-based Wyss Institute’s lung-on-a-chip, which combines tissue engineering and electronics to mimic the interface between the lung’s air sacs and capillaries (Science, DOI: 10.1126/science.1188302). He said that technologies like this suggest viable alternatives to animal testing are possible.

When New Scientist reported on the lung-on-a-chip in 2010, researchers praised it as a step in the right direction, but cautioned that immortalized cell lines, such as those on the chip, don’t neccesarily behave like primary cells from patients. Collins also noted that it might be possible to use such devices with patients’ own cells someday.

On the repurposing side, Collins cited an article on the topic in Nature Reviews Drug Discovery (DOI: 10.1038/nrd3473), and alluded to lonafarnib (SCH 66336), a farnesyltransferase inhibitor that was originally designed to be part of cancer-treatment cocktails. It didn’t pan out as a cancer drug, Collins said, but now clinical trials are underway to test whether the drug is effective at countering a rare mutation that causes Hutchinson-Guilford progeria, an ailment that leads to rapid aging in children. Collins shared the stage with 15-year-old Sam, a progeria patient.

Francis Collins (right) and Sam. (TEDMED)

To bridge the massive gap between ideas and applications in medicine “we need resources, we need new kinds of partnerships, and we need talent,” he told the audience.

In a conversation with reporters after his talk, Collins provided another repurposing story published last month– bexarotene, a retinoid X receptor agonist intended for lymphoma that was just shown to clear amyloid-beta and reverse cognitive deficits in a mouse model of Alzheimer’s (Science, DOI: 10.1126/science.1217697)

At that chat, I asked Collins how the repurposing effort and his call for talent squares with massive layoffs in industry and flat or declining funding.
“It would help if we had a strong foundation of support,” Collins said. He said his agency’s purchasing power has decreased 20% over the last 8 years.

Another reporter asked what was the main obstacle to getting repurposing become habit. “IP,” Collins said. He told reporters that a model intellectual property sharing agreement with pharmaceutical companies has been drafted. Asked if companies had signed on to it, Collins said “we’re working on it.”

UPDATED 3:30PM 4/12: Here’s the scoop on Cookie Monster, for Muppet devotee Robin:
he spoke later in the session with ultramarathoner Scott Jurek about nutrition.

2 Comments

  • Apr 11th 201216:04
    by Robin G

    Sounds like the beginning of an interesting event, and I look forward to learning more about it. But I have a quibble: You mention that Cookie Monster has a role but don’t say any more about him. As a longtime Muppet fan(atic) I’m curious!

  • Apr 12th 201215:04
    by Carmen Drahl

    Touché Robin. Cookie didn’t share the stage with Collins, but he appeared later in Collins’s session. Ultramarathon runner Scott Jurek talked to Cookie about how he might need to change his diet if he aspires to be a long-distance runner. I’ve updated the post with a picture.

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