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A Virtual Town Hall with NCATS Leadership


Last week, over 1,000 participants from all sectors of medical research participated in a virtual town hall with the interim leadership of the new National Center for Advancing Translational Science (NCATS) at NIH to discuss the status of the effort. NCATS is the first new Center at NIH in a dozen years.

Convened by 
FasterCures as part of its Webinar series, it was a follow-up to a previous FasterCures web event held in March 2011 in which NIH director Francis Collins had laid out the vision for this new Center.

Dr. Tom Insel, acting director of NCATS (and director of the National Institute for Mental Health at NIH) laid out the Center’s mission, which in brief is “to pursue opportunities for disruptive innovation” in the process of translating promising discoveries into new diagnostics and therapeutics, and to “study the pathway and reengineer the pipeline” in ways that will benefit all players in the system. NCATS, he said, “is disease agnostic. We’re looking at generic innovations across many different diseases.”

Insel was careful to emphasize that the purpose of NCATS is to “facilitate — not duplicate — other translational research activities supported by NIH; to complement — not compete with — the private sector; and to reinforce — not reduce — NIH’s commitment to basic research.” He said that “most of the pieces of NCATS existed before [within NIH]. We’re trying to improve the outcomes from the same inputs.”

Insel summarized some of the 
innovative programs that are now housed within or are being contemplated for NCATS, such as :
  • The NCATS Pharmaceutical Collection (NPC), a comprehensive resource of 3,800 approved and investigational medicines to facilitate repurposing of medicines;
  • Research Electronic Data Capture (REDCap), a Secure Web application that enables investigators to: create standardized surveys, easily transfer data, and export data into a variety of statistical programs;
  • The Learning Collaborative, a cross-sector collaboration to repurpose an approved drug for use in leukemia (which will be the topic of a FasterCures Webinar on March 21st);
  • An NIH‒FDA‒DARPA collaboration that aims to develop a tissue chip that mimics human physiology to screen for safe, effective drugs; and
  • An NIH–industry “compound rescuing initiative,” which would match compounds from pharma’s “virtual medicine cabinet” with NIH-funded scientists’ innovative ideas for new uses.
Margaret Anderson, FasterCures executive director who moderated the web meeting said that NIH’s efforts to establish NCATS is an efficient and effective way to thread the needle of existing work and make headway on de-risking the medical research process.

Dr. Chris Austin, Director of NCATS’s Division of Pre-Clinical Innovation and Dr. Kathy Hudson, NCATS Acting Deputy Director both answered questions from participants about collaboration with other stakeholders. Austin said he sees NCATS “as a collaborative instrument,” and that they are seeking the best ideas and best opportunities from outside researchers and funders. Hudson said “partnerships are an essential ingredient for NCATS,” and that input would be sought via a number of advisory groups, in addition to working with industry and other partners on specific projects.

Dr. Josephine Briggs, Acting Director of NCATS’s Division of Clinical Innovation, answered questions about the future of the Clinical and Translational Science Awards (CTSA) program, a network of 60 academic institutions which is the largest single component of NCATS, representing about 78% of its budget. She said that “the CTSA consortium is absolutely essential in the implementation of best practices” developed through NCATS, and that going forward NIH would be “focused on making sure the CTSAs are truly a networked consortium.”

Insel also noted that “unique and in some cases unprecedented scientific opportunities that exist drove the creation of NCATS.” He emphasized that this new center is a catalyst for medical progress, leveraging larger investments at the 26 other institutes and centers at NIH to make sure they have a greater impact. In the long term, he said, success will be measured on whether NCATS can catalyze clinical research to be “cheaper, faster, and better.”

Patients are waiting.