- Associated Press - Wednesday, February 23, 2011

WASHINGTON (AP) - The nation’s premier research agency plans to open a new center this fall to spur creation of medications because of concern that exciting discoveries aren’t being turned into treatments fast enough.

The plan is on track despite the increasingly likely prospect of budget cuts for the venerable National Institutes of Health, agency chief Dr. Francis Collins said Wednesday.

The idea: Do more of the risky early-stage research into promising compounds that drug companies are increasingly reluctant to invest in. It’s a period called “the valley of death” because so many of those early experiments fail.

“The valley of death needs to become a valley that leads to life,” Collins told reporters. “The time is right even in a difficult budget environment, maybe especially in a difficult budget environment.”

That kind of drug-related research isn’t new for the NIH. The cancer drug taxol and AIDS drug AZT, for example, originated from NIH work, Collins noted, and agency researchers have 550 projects under way devoted to various medications, vaccines or medical devices. He cited recent research that found 20 percent of innovative new medications that hit the market in recent years originated from NIH-funded research _ as the drug industry’s own research productivity has declined.

The National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences would bring much of NIH’s current drug development research _ about $700 million worth, from a $30 billion budget _ under one roof so scientists could better collaborate, Collins said. It also will explore new techniques to predict, for instance, which experimental medications will be safe enough to test in people faster than is done today.

“This is not an effort to turn NIH into a drug-development company,” Collins stressed. “The idea is to … move projects just far enough along for them to be attractive to commercial investment.”

The plan has drawn some objections by researchers and others concerned about the dismantling of another NIH center at the same time, projects that Collins said will be taken over by other parts of the agency.

But some high-profile patient advocacy groups are praising the change. Fewer than 200 of 7,000 rare diseases have an available therapy, said James O’Leary of the Genetic Alliance.

“That’s just too slow,” he said. “This translational medicine focus is critical to the mission of NIH.”

The Bethesda, Md.-based NIH plans to open the center Oct. 1.

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