Francis Collins on The Future of Genomic Research
  Francis Collins     Biography    
Recorded: 31 May 2003

Twenty years is pretty tough. A lot of people have made fools of themselves trying to predict beyond next week in a field that moves as quickly as this one. But I mean I’ve tried and I’ve even published papers saying what I think might be possible by 2015 or 2020, and I’m sure I’ll be embarrassed by those at some point, But I’ll try them out on you. I mean I’m a physician. The reason I’m excited about this is its medical benefits. So I believe that in another seven or eight years we will have uncovered the variance in the genome that confer risk for common disease. We will understand the hereditary components of heart disease and diabetes and mental illness and cancer and asthma and high blood pressure and on down that very long list. And for some of those conditions we will already in seven or eight years be in a position to offer to people a chance to find out their risks. And people will be interested in circumstances where there’s something they can to do to reduce the risk as we now do in some instances of cancer, for instance. So I think we will see that advent of individualized preventive medicine based upon your own DNA. And not some across the board, one size fits all set of predictions. That’s exciting.

And I’m excited about that. But I think people who portray that as the ultimate outcome have missed the point because we’re all still going to get sick from something. The death rate is still going to be one per person after all. The illness rate is going to be a lot higher than we wish it would. You want something waiting for you there if all of your prevention fails, something that’s a lot better than what you’ve got now. If I get cancer I don’t want to have to take those horrible drugs that are going to make my hair fall out and make me sick as a dog. I want something that goes right to the heart of the matter. And I have a fair amount of confidence that as long as I can hold off getting cancer for a little longer there’s going to be something much better waiting for me. I think that will be true of diabetes and Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease and heart disease and asthma because we will understand really at the most fundamental level why do those diseases happen. Not to say they’re hard wired into DNA because they’re not. But we’ll understand the part that is in the DNA and we’ll know from that how to intervene. That’s not tomorrow. That’s not seven or eight years from now for most diseases. I wish it were that soon. It’s probably more like twenty years for things like Alzheimer’s or diabetes where our ignorance is still so massive, but we got a pathway. We have an opportunity. We have a strategy. We haven’t had one for our human history. It’s pretty cool. We have one now.

Francis Collins earned a B.S. in Chemistry from the University of Virginia (1970), a Ph.D. in Physical Chemistry from Yale University (1974), and an M.D. from the University of North Carolina (1977). While a researcher at the University of Michigan (1984-1993), he pioneered “positional cloning” methods which resulted in the Collins team and their collaborators isolating the genes responsible for cystic fibrosis, Huntington’s disease, neurofibromatosis, and others.

In 1993 he accepted leadership of the Human Genome Project (HGP) by becoming Director of the National Center for Human Genome Research (NHGRI). With Dr. Collins as head of the NHGRI, the HGP attained its goal of sequencing all 3 billion base pairs of the human genome.

He has attended all of the Cold Spring Harbor meetings on genomics.