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Trump should keep Collins as NIH director

Francis Collins. AFP/Getty Images

Like other presidential appointees, Francis Collins, the director of the National Institutes of Health, was required to submit a letter that promises he will resign just before President-elect Donald Trump takes office. This policy, set by President Obama, is designed to provide for an orderly transition.

But Trump and incoming Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price, whose agency oversees NIH, should heed bipartisan calls to keep Collins in a position that is critical to maintaining the nation’s leadership in biomedical research.

Under Collins, an accomplished physician-scientist who led a groundbreaking project to sequence the human genome, the NIH is in the midst of launching major research efforts, including the Cancer Moonshot and a precision medicine initiative designed to collect data on lifestyle, the environment, and genetics. Animal rights activists applauded last year when he announced that NIH will no longer support using chimpanzees in the lab. And Collins has even brought a measure of budget stability to an agency plagued by flat funding.


Perhaps more important, Collins has an eye on the future. Part of that vision involves the transformative potential of embryonic stem cells, which are already being used in experimental therapies to treat spinal cord injuries. Because creating new embryonic stem cell lines means destroying human embryos, President George W. Bush imposed strict limits on them. President Obama lifted those restrictions when he took office in 2009; last year, embryonic stem cells were used in 184 research projects that received $80 million in NIH funding.

It’s true that significant progress has also been made using reprogrammed cells taken from adults, which doesn’t involve the destruction of embryos. In fact, two scientists won the Nobel Prize for medicine in 2012 for their work driving adult cells back to a pluripotent stem cell state. But scientists and doctors are right when they say they need both types of cells in order to deploy all research tools available to treat everything from macular degeneration to paralyzing spinal cord injuries.

Spinal cord patients are already receiving experimental stem cell treatments in clinical trials. These treatments hold out more than hope for people like Kristopher Boesen, a young Californian paralyzed in a car accident last spring. For Boesen, who is being treated at Keck Medical Center at the University of Southern California, they mean a chance to use his arms and hands to feed himself and steer his motorized wheelchair. Dr. Charles Liu, director of the USC Neurorestoration Center, injected millions of stem cells directly into the cervical spinal cord in Boesen’s neck; the treatment was derived from an embryonic line developed by Asterias Biotherapeutics. “Irrespective of political perspective, when we see what these patients are up against, we need to be more empathetic, and use every strategic, rational, and safe approach to improve their level of independence,” Liu said.


That promise is why Collins’s advocacy for stem cell research will be crucial in the early days of a Trump administration. While Donald Trump’s position on the use of embryonic stem cells is less than clear, Vice President-elect Mike Pence is a vehement opponent — he has written that it is “morally wrong to create human life to destroy it for research.”

For a research center like Boston, having a familiar face at the agency may also prove important to the thriving biotechnology sector. Boston averages about $1.7 billion a year in NIH funding; the top amounts sustain research at hospitals like Massachusetts General and Brigham and Women’s, as well as at Harvard Medical School.


Collins has competition. Andy Harris, a Republican congressman from Maryland, has also been campaigning for the job. But Harris has taken controversial stands and led an unsuccessful effort to block legislation creating a stem cell research fund in his home state. He has no experience leading major research efforts — and lacks Collins’s unusually strong support in Congress. Last week, top Republicans, including Senate health committee chairman Lamar Alexander, wrote Trump a letter saying Collins is “the right person, at the right time, to continue to lead the world’s premier biomedical research agency.” Collins, they noted, has a true vision. We hope Trump is listening, because it’s a vision worth preserving.