What's Next for Francis Collins, Genome Decoder?

The man who guided one of his generation's greatest scientific achievements is leaving his government job. Francis Collins helped to map the human genome as director of the National Human Genome Research Institute. He's leaving his post Aug. 1.

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ARI SHAPIRO, host:

A crowd of scientists has gathered in this former nunnery on the campus of the National Institutes of Health to listen to this man talk about how he led one of his generation's greatest scientific achievements, the sequencing of the human genome.

Dr. FRANCIS COLLINS (Human Genome Research Institute): An enterprise which seemed incredibly audacious when first proposed in 1990, but which did succeed in generating an essentially complete copy of the human genome sequenced by April of 2003.

SHAPIRO: Dr. Francis Collins has run the Human Genome Research Institute for 15 years, where he oversaw the sequencing of all our DNA. That's essentially the human blueprint. His team figured out the proper order for three billion letters. Collins is retiring in August.

(Soundbite of applause)

SHAPIRO: Until then, he's still traversing this spacious campus, either on his motorcycle, or like today, on foot.

I noticed in your talk that one of the first things you mentioned in addressing this group was the importance of teamwork.

Dr. COLLINS: Absolutely. There are still a few projects that can be done by a lonely investigator, toiling away by themselves at the lab bench, but not very many. Most of the problems that are most exciting and most in need in of solving is by teams.

SHAPIRO: And so the kinds of scientific problems that are at the cutting edge now are more multi-disciplinary than they may have been decades ago?

Dr. COLLINS: They are. They are. I think that's right. The disciplinary boundaries, I think, are getting very blurry.

SHAPIRO: Well, this is interesting, given your background, because as I understand it, you initially were not so interested in biology and didn't think it was a field for you.

Dr. COLLINS: Much too messy.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SHAPIRO: And so now you're in biology in a way that combines all of these other fields, as well.

Dr. COLLINS: And I love it - scientists working as team members instead of, you know, the almighty ego that has to rise above all other egos.

SHAPIRO: Do most other scientists seem to share your view?

Dr. COLLINS: I think it's coming around to that perspective. It's still tough. I mean, let's be honest. If you go into science, particularly cutting-edge scientists are going to have a bit of a competitive edge.

SHAPIRO: Everybody wants a Nobel Prize.

Dr. COLLINS: Everybody wants a Nobel Prize. I haven't met anybody who says no, that's not important or not interesting. At the same time, I do think - and maybe genomics has been one of the reasons for this - that the success of the team effort brought a lot of people around to the idea if they really want to make a contribution, they're more likely to succeed if they're part of a team than if they're toiling away in a lonely fashion, refusing to talk to anybody else about their ideas.

SHAPIRO: Francis Collins is on his way to meet Khan Kow(ph) at his office. She's a post-doctoral fellow studying progeria, the most dramatic form of premature aging.

Dr. COLLINS: Well, come in, and we can sit here.

SHAPIRO: Using information from the human genome, these scientists are exploring fundamental questions about what it means to be human, such as why do we age and is there a way to stop it.

Dr. COLLINS: Could that be telling you something about how the genes that are modified, as far as their epigenetic marks, are located in the three-dimensional nucleus?

SHAPIRO: This is not exactly water-cooler conversation, but it illustrates part of why Francis Collins has been so popular. He can go head to head with the smartest scientists, and he can connect with non-scientists, like the members of Congress who sign his checks. Just listen to the title he proposes for Khan Kow's upcoming research paper.

Dr. COLLINS: So pas de deux, you know, is the French description of a duet, a dance duet, a "Pas de Deux of Cell Death." I have to think about whether that's a little over the top, but…

(Soundbite of laughter)

SHAPIRO: His gusto for this work is obvious - gusto and reverence. In his book, "The Language of God," Collins wrote: Science can be a form of worship.

Dr. COLLINS: If you are somebody like myself, who has both a scientific and a spiritual world view, who sees that the universe only makes sense if you postulate a creator, that when you are doing science and you're discovering how the universe is working, you're also getting a glimpse of God's mind.

SHAPIRO: There was another line in your book that really stuck with me, where you said for the foreseeable future, the death rate will be one per person.

Dr. COLLINS: That's correct.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. COLLINS: I don't see that changing.

SHAPIRO: That being the case, what is the ultimate goal of your work here?

Dr. COLLINS: The ultimate goal is to try to understand the causes of human illness, to be able to apply that to prevent and treat disease. That's what motivates me. I'm a physician. I've spent far too many hours in a clinic or in a hospital ward, frustrated by my lack of understanding and lack of tools to try to help somebody who's suffering on the basis of a disease. The chance to change that, to deal with problems that have vexed humanity for all time, is an incredible privilege.

SHAPIRO: The complete human genome map has provided insight into diseases, but it has not provided many cures. And with knowledge comes new ethical questions. For example, what's the value of knowing you're predisposed to Alzheimer's if your doctors have no way to cure it?

Dr. COLLINS: I can tell you that having spent all of those hours talking to families or individuals about diseases for which we currently don't have much to offer, the idea that we would basically say, well, we're just not going to push this research agenda because there might be ethical consequences is not an acceptable position to take.

One of the things I'm proudest of about the way that the genome project was set up and continues to operate is a focus on those ethical, legal and social issues. This was a new experiment. We haven't done it that way before. Generally, science has just kind of moved on. From the beginning of the genome project, we've put a substantial part of the budget into researching these ethical, legal and social issues, thinking hard about what is coming down the road, and what should we do to anticipate that to avoid unfortunate consequences.

SHAPIRO: Looking down his own road, Francis Collins says he doesn't yet know where he'll go next. He says he's restless, and that's one reason he's moving on. And to mark occasions like his retirement, Collins has a tradition of rewriting songs.

Dr. COLLINS: (Singing) Wasting away again with all this DNA.

SHAPIRO: Jimmy Buffett recently had his DNA tested by a private company to make predictions about illnesses. Collins took that idea and sang this as part of his farewell at the annual genome picnic.

Dr. COLLINS: (Singing) Some people claim that this is all just a game, but I thought I'd have perfect genes.

(Soundbite of laughter)

(Soundbite of applause)

SHAPIRO: Dr. Francis Collins, it's been a pleasure talking with you, and congratulations on your retirement.

Dr. COLLINS: I think it's been a pleasure. Thank you. It's been nice talking to you, too.

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