NIH Director Francis Collins Discusses the Human Genome, Stem Cells and the Intersection of Science and Faith

When Dr. Francis Collins was nominated by President Obama to be director of the National Institutes of Health in the summer of 2009, there was little dissent in Congress. One of the foremost scientists in the world who was instrumental in sequencing the human genome, Collins was confirmed unanimously just four weeks after being appointed. He now sets the NIH's priorities and presides over the government-funded advancement of some of the most cutting-edge medical technologies and treatments.


In his Big Think interview Collins speaks about the process through which the NIH decides which medical research projects to fund. Less than 20% of the research proposals that are presented to the Institutes are approved, and Collins admits that scientific opportunity is a big part of the equation: "There’s no point throwing money at a problem if nobody had any ideas about how to move the ball forward," he says. "And you can see then sometimes when a rare disease which may not affect that many people hits that moment of scientific opportunity, and oftentimes rare diseases teach you a thing about common diseases as well."

Collins also talks about the difficulty of assessing "return on investment" for medical research; he says the agency tries to figure out the relative per-dollar benefit of the various programs it funds, but "the real return you’re looking for is clinical benefits, diagnostics, therapeutics, preventive measures," and the lead time in those is often measured in years. To this end, he says the NIH has to play a larger role in working with the private sector to get more effective treatments through the development pipeline, approved by the FDA, and into the hands of the public.

Collins also talks about how the economic downturn has affected research projects, and how it has forced the NIH to hone its focus and be more specific in how it sets its priorities. "[The recession] forces us to say, we can’t do everything," says Collins. "It forces us in some instances to close down programs that have been reasonably productive, but compared to what we’d like to do now in terms of new an innovative projects aren’t quite as compelling as if we had unlimited resources.  It makes the job of a science manager a lot tougher, but is the reality of what we are currently living with."

A devout Christian, Collins has been outspoken about his faith and has written several books about the intersection of science and belief—including the bestseller "The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief." He says it's hard for many scientists to believe in God because science is about trying to get rigorous answers to questions about how nature works." Some scientists see religion as a threat to the scientific method, but faith "is really asking a different set of questions," says Collins, who doesn't believe the two ideas need be in conflict. He says that whether a scientist is a believer or not should not have any affect on how they conduct their scientific inquiry, and says he wishes more scientists were willing "to stand up and say that faith and science need not to be in conflict."

Recent legal questions around whether federal funds can be used for for human embryonic stem cell research has "cast a cold chill" through the field, says Collins: "I’ve spoken to many scientists involved in human embryonic stem cell research who are quite troubled about this and who, in many instances are questioning whether this is an area that they can continue to work without feeling as if their whole program could be pulled out from under them."

Collins, the former director of the National Human Genome Research Institute, also gives a brief description of the process by which geneticists link genes to diseases, and talks about some of the things that surprised him in the process of mapping the human genome. He also talked about the promise of "personalized" medicines, which might one day be tailored to the specific DNA of the person afflicted with a disease. Collins says that he has been "a little disturbed" by cynicism about the promise of genetic medicines, and the clinical yield of treatments that have resulted from the mapping of the genome.

Finally, Collins also speaks about some of the greatest health risks facing the United States—notably the obesity epidemic and the attendant problem of diabetes that affects more and more Americans each year. He says that this wave of obesity, if not addressed, could "result in an outcome where our grandchildren will not live as long as we do and we would therefore turn down what has been upward curve in longevity over many decades."

​There are two kinds of failure – but only one is honorable

Malcolm Gladwell teaches "Get over yourself and get to work" for Big Think Edge.

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Is this why time speeds up as we age?

We take fewer mental pictures per second.

Photo by Djim Loic on Unsplash
Mind & Brain
  • Recent memories run in our brains like sped-up old movies.
  • In childhood, we capture images in our memory much more quickly.
  • The complexities of grownup neural pathways are no match for the direct routes of young brains.
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Scientists study tattooed corpses, find pigment in lymph nodes

It turns out, that tattoo ink can travel throughout your body and settle in lymph nodes.

17th August 1973: An American tattoo artist working on a client's shoulder. (Photo by F. Roy Kemp/BIPs/Getty Images)
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In the slightly macabre experiment to find out where tattoo ink travels to in the body, French and German researchers recently used synchrotron X-ray fluorescence in four "inked" human cadavers — as well as one without. The results of their 2017 study? Some of the tattoo ink apparently settled in lymph nodes.


Image from the study.

As the authors explain in the study — they hail from Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich, the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility, and the German Federal Institute for Risk Assessment — it would have been unethical to test this on live animals since those creatures would not be able to give permission to be tattooed.

Because of the prevalence of tattoos these days, the researchers wanted to find out if the ink could be harmful in some way.

"The increasing prevalence of tattoos provoked safety concerns with respect to particle distribution and effects inside the human body," they write.

It works like this: Since lymph nodes filter lymph, which is the fluid that carries white blood cells throughout the body in an effort to fight infections that are encountered, that is where some of the ink particles collect.

Image by authors of the study.

Titanium dioxide appears to be the thing that travels. It's a white tattoo ink pigment that's mixed with other colors all the time to control shades.

The study's authors will keep working on this in the meantime.

“In future experiments we will also look into the pigment and heavy metal burden of other, more distant internal organs and tissues in order to track any possible bio-distribution of tattoo ink ingredients throughout the body. The outcome of these investigations not only will be helpful in the assessment of the health risks associated with tattooing but also in the judgment of other exposures such as, e.g., the entrance of TiO2 nanoparticles present in cosmetics at the site of damaged skin."

Climate change melts Mount Everest's ice, exposing dead bodies of past climbers

Melting ice is turning up bodies on Mt. Everest. This isn't as shocking as you'd think.

Image source: Wikimedia commons
Surprising Science
  • Mt. Everest is the final resting place of about 200 climbers who never made it down.
  • Recent glacial melting, caused by global warming, has made many of the bodies previously hidden by ice and snow visible again.
  • While many bodies are quite visible and well known, others are renowned for being lost for decades.

The bodies that remain in view are often used as waypoints for the living. Some of them are well-known markers that have earned nicknames.

For instance, the image above is of "Green Boots," the unidentified corpse named for its neon footwear. Widely believed to be the body of Tsewang Paljor, the remains are well known as a guide point for passing mountaineers. Perhaps it is too well known, as the climber David Sharp died next to Green Boots while dozens of people walked past him- many presuming he was the famous corpse.

A large area below the summit has earned the discordant nickname "rainbow valley" for being filled with the bright and colorfully dressed corpses of maintainers who never made it back down. The sight of a frozen hand or foot sticking out of the snow is so common that Tshering Pandey Bhote, vice president of Nepal National Mountain Guides Association claimed: "most climbers are mentally prepared to come across such a sight."

Other bodies are famous for not having been found yet. Sandy Irvine, the partner of George Mallory, may have been one of the first two people to reach the summit of Everest a full thirty years before Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay did it. Since they never made it back down, nobody knows just how close to the top they made it.

Mallory's frozen body was found by chance in the nineties without the Kodak cameras he brought up to record the climb with. It has been speculated that Irvine might have them and Kodak says they could still develop the film if the cameras turn up. Circumstantial evidence suggests that they died on the way back down from the summit, Mallory had his goggles off and a photo of his wife he said he'd put at the peak wasn't in his coat. If Irving is found with that camera, history books might need rewriting.

As Everest's glaciers melt its morbid history comes into clearer view. Will the melting cause old bodies to become new landmarks? Will Sandy Irvine be found? Only time will tell.

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