Treatments

Francis Collins: DNA May Be A Doctor's Best Friend

If anyone knows about DNA, it's physician-geneticist Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, who spent more than a decade leading the Human Genome Project.

National Institutes of Health director, Dr. Francis Collins. i i

hide captionNational Institutes of Health director, Dr. Francis Collins, photographed last August on his first day at work at NIH headquarters.

AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite
National Institutes of Health director, Dr. Francis Collins.

National Institutes of Health director, Dr. Francis Collins, photographed last August on his first day at work at NIH headquarters.

AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite

So it was a natural move for him to ship off his own genetic code for analysis. He wanted to experience first-hand how behavior can change based on personalized information about the risks for disease.

When the results came, Collins, author of the new book , The Language of Life: DNA and the Revolution in Personalized Medicine, found what science said about his own DNA a bit unsettling, as he describes during a recent interview with Kaiser Health News.

"It did affect me to find out that I was at risk for diabetes, which I had no family history of. But my family has all been extremely lean and I was not so lean, as I discovered when I got this information," Collins says. The "wake-up call" led Collins to switch up his diet and start an exercise program. His efforts helped him drop 25 pounds.

Collins considers this type of personalization of medical recommendations as "part of the solution to the current confusion" over medicine.

"You wouldn't go into the shoe store and just pick shoes off the rack without noticing if they were your size and yet, oftentimes with medical recommendations, that's kind of what we've had to do because it was the best information we had," Collins says.

The federal government is looking to Collin's agency to help iron out some of the details of what therapies work best for patients through studies in the area of comparative effectiveness research. The NIH received $400 million to bolster its work in this area, as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

"As we learn more about an individual's risk — from family history to DNA testing to understanding environmental exposures — we ought to be able to come up with recommendations that are more personalized," Collins says. "I think people are ready for that. I think they're hungry for that. I think they are more likely to be responsive to that. But we have a long ways to go in terms of preparing people for that kind of individualized approach to medicine."

Evans is a reporter at Kaiser Health News, a nonprofit news service.

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