NIH Starts to Flesh Out Drug Development Program

Lawmakers today began discussing the details of a newly created drug development program at the National Institutes of Health (NIH). NIH Director Francis Collins told a Senate panel that he's eager to get started—once the program has a budget.

The Cures Acceleration Network (CAN) was proposed last year by Senator Arlen Specter (D-PA), the champion of biomedical funding who stuffed $10.4 billion of stimulus money into NIH's budget last year. He also helped insert CAN—without any funding—into the health reform bill. Located within the NIH director's office, CAN would help researchers bridge the "valley of death," the gap between a lab discovery and the steps needed to get a drug ready for testing in clinical trials. The law authorizes a $500 million budget for CAN, which would disburse grants of up to $15 million.

Collins held an all-day retreat last Thursday to discuss the network with his 27 institute and center directors. "There was a lot of enthusiasm," he told a Senate Appropriations Committee subcommittee today. "Not that NIH would become a drug development company," he added, but instead would forge "partnerships" with the private sector that "are really exciting and unprecedented."

The $500 million would be enough to support 20 drug development projects "from soup to nuts," and another 20 projects using compounds that companies had abandoned, by "repurposing" them, Collins said. But it's not just about money. He said the legislation allows the program to be "DARPA-like," comparing it to a Defense Department program known for funding far-out research ideas. NIH would have flexibility it doesn't have now "to manage projects in very forward-looking ways" with a "quick turnaround."

First, the committee will have to give CAN a budget, however. The money can't come out of the $1 billion raise that President Barack Obama has proposed for NIH in 2011 because the agency is facing record-low grant-funding rates next year when the stimulus runs out, Collins said. Specter, a committee member, seemed undeterred. "We could do a billion" dollars or even $2 billion, he suggested. But subcommittee chair, Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA), noting that his subcommittee also funds education programs, countered: "You tell me where you'd get the money ... and who we're going to take it away from."

Collins told ScienceInsider that he would "love to start out with a fully aggressive schedule" for CAN and that waiting a year would be "frustrating." NIH can't even hire staff members to run the program until Congress approves a budget. "Much depends on what these guys and their friends in the House [of Representatives Appropriations Committee] decide," he said.