NIH to Establish Translational Medicine Center

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Francis Collins, Director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), said last month that he is moving ahead with a plan to create a new center focused on translational medicine, presently called the National Center for the Advancement of Translational Sciences (NCATS) [1]. The strategy comes at a time of mounting frustration from researchers that the abundance of new information about the molecular basis of many diseases hasn’t led to the development of new therapies.

Translational research

Last month, the NIH’s Scientific Management Review Board voted 12-1 to establish a new center devoted to turning promising scientific discoveries into drugs and speeding therapies from the lab to the clinic. By law, the NIH can’t have any more than 27 centers and institutes. Currently, the NIH plans to abolish the existing National Center for Research Resources (NCRR) and transfer its programs to the new Center or to other parts of NIH.

Dr. Collins was asked in an interview this month as to why he prioritizes translational medicine [2]. He said that although there has been a flood of new discoveries over the last few years on the molecular basis of disease and despite increasing advancements by the private sector, the output of new drugs approved by the FDA has been declining.

Perhaps in part responding to these factors, and to the downturn in the economy, pharmaceutical companies have cut back their investments in research and development. We can’t count on the biotech community to step in and fill that void either, because they are hurting from an absence of long-term venture capital support. So, we have this paradox: we have a great opportunity to develop truly new therapeutic approaches, but are undergoing a real constriction of the pipeline. One solution is to come up with a non-traditional way of fostering drug development — through increased NIH involvement.

By having the NIH more engaged in the pipeline, we can also ask whether we can improve the success rates of drug development. Pharmaceutical companies have been making drugs for a long time, and have created some great products, but there’s been less consideration of the whole drug development pipeline itself as a scientific problem. We need to re-engineer the process, with a lot more focus on the front end.

The new center for translational medicine and therapeutics could receive funding as early as October 2011, when the U.S. government’s 2012 fiscal year begins.


  1. NIH director wins bid for translational medicine centre. Nature News. 2010 Dec 8.
  2. An audience with … Francis Collins. Nat Rev Drug Discov. 2011 Jan;10(1):14. Epub 2010 Dec 10.
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About the Author

Walter Jessen is a senior writer for Highlight HEALTH Media.