NIH Looks Within for New Translational Center Chief

The National Institutes of Health's (NIH's) new translational research center has its first chief: Christopher Austin, a neurologist and former Merck researcher who has run drug discovery efforts at NIH for the past 10 years. NIH Director Francis Collins announced the appointment this morning at the inaugural meeting of the advisory council to the 9-month-old National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences (NCATS).

Congress signed off on the $575 million NCATS last December after months of controversy over whether NIH was trying to become a drug company. NIH insists that NCATS will restrict itself to addressing bottlenecks in the drug development process.

Collins said that after "a vigorous international search," NIH selected Austin, 51, who now heads NCATS' division of preclinical innovation. "Chris has had a remarkable career with a great diversity of experiences that place him in a wonderful position to lead this enterprise," Collins said.

A Harvard-trained developmental neurogeneticist, Austin worked on genome-based drug discovery at Merck for 7 years. In 2002, he left to become adviser for translational research at the National Human Genome Research Institute, where Collins was then director. Austin helped launch NIH's molecular libraries program, a set of industry-style small molecule screening centers at academic institutions. Until recently, he headed NIH's intramural screening center and other programs, such as drug development for rare diseases. When NCATS was created, these were folded into its preclinical division.

Austin, who starts on 23 September (his birthday), described the NCATS appointment at today's meeting as the "culmination" of his career-long efforts to bridge basic research and the clinic. "This is a really hard, ambitious, but deeply important mission we're all on," he said.

Some observers suggest that NIH struggled to recruit an NCATS director from outside because an industry scientist who moved to NIH would likely have to take a steep salary cut and divest any drug company stock he or she owned. Other deterrents might have been NIH's bleak budget prospects and the upcoming presidential election, which could result in a change in NIH leadership.

Steven Paul, a former Eli Lilly research chief now at Weill Cornell Medical College in New York City who served on the search committee, declined to comment on whether government rules hindered the search. What matters, Paul says, is that: "We came up with a terrific person. … Chris has credibility with both academic investigators and the private sector."

At today's meeting, NIH leaders and its advisers—a mix of patients, industry experts, and academics—began sorting out what NCATS will do. (The meeting also included the overlapping board of the Cures Acceleration Network, CAN, a component of NCATS that will give out grants for drug development.) U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Commissioner Margaret Hamburg said she hopes NCATS will not only come up with specific tools for improving regulatory science, such as new trial designs, but also get both basic and clinical scientists to think about the steps needed to turn a potential drug into a product. "We do have to think about how we do research somewhat differently," she said.

Thomas Insel, acting director of NCATS, cautioned that the center, which consists mostly of existing programs at NIH, won't have much new money to work with. "We really have to be very focused," he said.

But CAN board member Tachi Yamada, chief medical and scientific officer at Takeda Pharmaceutical Co., said NCATS doesn't necessarily need a big budget to have an impact. "A lot of solutions can be very inexpensive if thought through strategically," he said. Yamada, who has also worked for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, gave the example of an ongoing collaboration he was involved with to work with FDA on gaining approval of a three-drug cocktail for tuberculosis without going through "50 years of clinical trials." NCATS, he said, will benefit from "some very serious strategic analysis of where the real roadblocks might be in selective areas."