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Senator Lankford Questions NIH Heads on Efforts to Find Non-Addictive Alternatives to Opioid Pain Medicines

CLICK HERE to watch Lankford’s Q&A.

WASHINGTON, DC – Senator James Lankford (R-OK) today attended a Senate Appropriations Committee Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, and Related Agencies hearing on the fiscal year 2020 budget for the National Institutes of Health. Adequately funding research and treatment or cure development for national public health issues are high priorities for Lankford in his work on the Appropriations Committee. Lankford questioned NIH Director Dr. Francis S. Collins, M.D., Ph.D. about the status of brain-mapping, finding non-addictive alternatives to opioid pain medicines, and duplication and overlap among federal health programs.

Lankford supported last year’s Senate Appropriations Defense, Labor, HHS, and related agencies funding bill, which provided an additional $2 billion to NIH for medical research and provided important provisions to ensure greater transparency in NIH spending to eliminate waste and ensure tax dollars are only spent on research that promotes real scientific advancement.

Transcript of Q&A

Lankford: Thank you all.  Quick story. I was sitting on an airplane about three months ago, sitting next to a gentleman flying back to Oklahoma. He leaned over and introduced himself as a fellow Oklahoman, we chit-chat for a while, and I said, ‘What brings you to Washington?’ He said, ‘I come often. I’m in an NIH trial. And I have been for years. And he smiled, and he said, ‘And I’m still here.” And from watching his smile and chit-chatting with him on the two-hour flight back home, it reminded me again of how many people that are still around, just like he said, because of the work that you’re doing. So thanks for continuing that work and for helping folks that—literally from him, as you know, he had been through everything… So we appreciate it very much.

Dr. Collins, give me an update on the brain-mapping. I want to walk through several things we’ve talked about in the past. We’ve obviously made significant investments into that. I missed the very opening statement of this in a previous thing that I had to be able to get to as well this morning. Tell me where we are on brain-mapping.

Collins: I’d love to talk about this. So this project, which began four years ago has very ambitious goals to really understand what are the cell types of the brain—there’s 86 billion of those cells, so that’s a pretty big challenge—and how are they connected together, and how do the circuits in the brain do the amazing things that they’re capable of, and how can that go awry and result in disorders like Parkinson’s Disease or Epilepsy, or a long list of others. We, after four years I would say have met or exceeded every one of the milestones put into place when the original plan for that ten-year program was put forward, and so you’re asking the question at the appropriate moment.”

Right now, we are having a meeting of all the brain investigators at the Marriott at Wardman Park and this evening I will chair a panel that will look at the plan now that’s being revised—we can call it, ‘Brain 2.0’—of what we might be able to accomplish given the platform that’s already been built. It’s exciting from what we’ve already learned in terms of new principles about how brain actually does what it does. It’s exciting the people who’ve come into it. In the latest couple of rounds of grant awards, more than  half of them were engineers, who would not necessarily be coming to NIH with grant applications, but they’re fired up about this too. And that interdisciplinary part of this is part of the reason that I think it is turning out to be so successful.

Lankford: Thank you. We’ll want to get a detailed update because we’ll want to be able to make sure it stays on track obviously, but this is a massive project as you detailed before. You have brought together folks from the outside and from private companies to be able to talk about alternatives to opioids and to be able to developing a non-addictive pain treatment. How are the outside groups, private entities, pharmaceutical companies cooperating with you? Is that group still together, still working?

Collins: Actually quite well. We have, in fact, put in place a combination of scientific expertise from academia, from NIH, and from industry. And we are now trying to prioritize what may be as many as 60 or 70 possible therapeutics that would be non-addictive treatment for pain, but which have been slowly moving through the pipeline. We at NIH are setting up a clinical trial network for people with chronic pain syndromes so that these can be tried out in a rigorous way, and companies are willing to contribute those assets…

Lankford: They are staying engaged?

Collins: They are staying engaged.

Lankford: Okay. That was the risk at the beginning, to say, ‘You’re bringing together competitor groups, to be able to say we’ve got to sit down and solve this right now, together,’ so…

Collins: Yeah, I met with the 20 pharmaceutical companies that have the largest budgets last weekend, and they were all on board.

Lankford: Okay. Thank you. Let me read a GAO report to you real quick and want to be able to get a follow-up from you. Their statement was, the talked about VA, CDC, NSF, DOD, NIH, and they said,  ‘Each lack a compressive information on health research funded by the other agencies, which limits their ability to identify potential areas of duplication in the health research they fund.’ They made that comment just looking at the broad picture of all of the research that’s happening in multiple different areas the Appropriations Committee appropriates. How is it working to be able to cooperate with VA, DOD, especially large programs, NSF to make sure—because as you would know grant folks are requesting of everybody. So they’ll have a slightly different name for similar research and go to as many institutions as they can to be able to see if they can’t find somebody to do the research on it. How are we doing at being able to avoid the duplication and communication in agencies?

Collins: So, Senator, it’s a great question. It is something we’re quite invested in. We have a whole Office of Portfolio Analysis that’s now been working at coming up with tools to allow us to look, very complicated research portfolios, what are the areas of overlap? We’ve done that kind of analysis, comparing NIH to NSF, comparing NIH to the DOD programs, comparing NIH to ARC. It’s very informative to be able to see that in a visual form. And we have in a few instances identified places where there was duplication and acted upon it. We have not yet done this as much for VA, but that’s next on the agenda. As long as we have access to the abstracts for the grants being funded, we can do this right away.

Lankford: You’re breaking down silos at NIH. The challenge is going to be for us to break down silos in medical research across multiple agencies to make sure researchers can meet with each other. And we know we’ve got similar research, and we’re sharing that information, and we’re not duplicating it.