WASHINGTON — An influential geneticist who wears his faith on his sleeve says that as the new director of the National Institutes of Health he won't inject his religious convictions into medical research while pushing cutting-edge science into better bedside care.
"The NIH director needs to focus on science," Dr. Francis Collins told The Associated Press on Monday. "I have no religious agenda for the NIH."
In taking the reins of the NIH, Collins — best known for unraveling the human genetic code — said he wants a practical focus for the nation's premier research agency, that new discoveries may even help save precious health care dollars.
"We should be completely bold about pushing that agenda," Collins said — not just for U.S. health, but for global health, too.
"Here we are at a circumstance where I think our country is seeking maybe to redefine our image a bit in the world, from being the soldier to the world to being perhaps the doctor to the world. I'd like to see that happen," he said, in his first interview before greeting employees of the $30 billion agency.
The Bush administration drew criticism for allowing religious ideology to guide some decision-making, such as curbs on the NIH's funding of research involving embryonic stem cells.
Collins is well-known for finding common ground between belief in God and science, without letting his evangelical Christian beliefs influence his 15 years of research at the NIH. He led the Human Genome Project that, along with a competing private company, mapped the genetic code that he famously called "the book of human life." Remarkably for Washington, Collins' team was ahead of schedule and under budget.
The folksy Collins, who explains the complexities of DNA in language the average person can understand, at the time called it "awe-inspiring to realize that we have caught the first glimpse of our own instruction book, previously known only to God."
He left NIH last year to, among other things, work with Barack Obama's presidential campaign — and to help found the BioLogos Foundation, a Web site formed by scientists who said they want to bridge gaps between the two groups. Collins, 59, said he resigned from the Web site the day before assuming his new job, but was proud of its work.
"I do think the current battle that's going on in our culture between extreme voices is not a productive one," he said. "The chance to play some kind of useful role in that conversation by pointing out the potential harmony was something that seemed to be making some inroads."
In a near-empty office Monday, nothing yet unpacked on his bare desk, an eager Collins outlined his goals for the NIH's next few years. Look for an emphasis on the new field of personalized medicine, which promises to use someone's genes to customize ways for them to stay healthy and fight disease, rather than today's one-size-fits-all advice.
It's already starting. Thousands of breast cancer survivors undergo chemotherapy they don't need in order to be sure the handful with particularly aggressive disease are treated. New genetic tests are cutting back on the unneeded chemo, and saving at least $100 million a year in health care costs, Collins said.
Also look for an emphasis on stem cell research. Under President Barack Obama's new policy on embryonic stem cells, which Collins helped develop, the agency now is deciding which of the 700 known embryonic stem cell batches, or "lines," are eligible for taxpayer-funded research. But Collins also marvels at another option, giving ordinary skin cells the same regenerative properties of embryonic stem cells.
"Clearly there's a lot we don't know, a huge amount we don't know, about the therapeutic uses" of either type, Collins said. "We ought to be thinking of every creative way to speed up the agenda for testing" that.
He is excited by a new law pushing for academic researchers, including NIH scientists, to turn discoveries about rare or neglected diseases into potentially usable drugs by performing the risky, early-stage development that can deter drug company investment.
And new technologies — high-capacity computing, nanotechnology — make it a powerful time to finally broadly study what makes different diseases arise.
"This really does seem like a synthetic moment," he joked.
Collins' vision is to knock down a bit of the NIH's ivory-tower reputation in a bid for more openness with scientists and the public. So the gene hunter who last spring posed in cool shades as part of GQ magazine's campaign to bring celebrity to science already is looking forward to his invitation to appear on the satirical television show "The Colbert Report."
After a standing ovation from a community that he dubbed "the NIH tribe," he told employees, "It's great to be home again."