The National Institutes of Health's (NIH's) new translational research center has its first chief: Christopher Austin, a neurologist and former Merck researcher who has run drug discovery efforts at NIH for the past 10 years. NIH Director Francis Collins announced the appointment this morning at the inaugural meeting of the advisory council to the 9-month-old National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences (NCATS).
Congress signed off on the $575 million NCATS last December after months of controversy over whether NIH was trying to become a drug company. NIH insists that NCATS will restrict itself to addressing bottlenecks in the drug development process.
Collins said that after "a vigorous international search," NIH selected Austin, 51, who now heads NCATS' division of preclinical innovation. "Chris has had a remarkable career with a great diversity of experiences that place him in a wonderful position to lead this enterprise," Collins said.
A Harvard-trained developmental neurogeneticist, Austin worked on genome-based drug discovery at Merck for 7 years. In 2002, he left to become adviser for translational research at the National Human Genome Research Institute, where Collins was then director. Austin helped launch NIH's molecular libraries program, a set of industry-style small molecule screening centers at academic institutions. Until recently, he headed NIH's intramural screening center and other programs, such as drug development for rare diseases. When NCATS was created, these were folded into its preclinical division.
Austin, who starts on 23 September (his birthday), described the NCATS appointment at today's meeting as the "culmination" of his career-long efforts to bridge basic research and the clinic. "This is a really hard, ambitious, but deeply important mission we're all on," he said.
Some observers suggest that NIH struggled to recruit an NCATS director from outside because an industry scientist who moved to NIH would likely have to take a steep salary cut and divest any drug company stock he or she owned. Other deterrents might have been NIH's bleak budget prospects and the upcoming presidential election, which could result in a change in NIH leadership.