As the US National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences (NCATS) approaches its first birthday, it can celebrate the appointment of its first director, Christopher Austin, and begin to build up the industry partnerships it needs to succeed. NCATS, the newest branch of the US National Institutes of Health (NIH), was signed into law by President Barack Obama in December 2011 and is charged with creating faster paths to bring drug research into actual medical use.
Austin is a neurologist who has been with NCATS since its inception, heading the division of preclinical innovation. His career includes a seven-year stint at pharmaceutical giant Merck, though he has spent the past decade with the NIH. Austin says that NCATS will “lift all boats” of drug research, given the center's disease agnostic platform. Initial critics of NCATS worried the government was creating its own branch of drug development, but Austin “realizes that the NIH does not discover drugs,” says Steven Paul, a neuroscientist at Weill Cornell Medical College in New York who served on the NCATS search committee for the director position. Paul described Austin as an optimistic leader, which was apparent in Austin's comment to Nature Medicine that drug companies and researchers are playing an “obligatorily team sport” and must learn to better collaborate.
To date, the center has already signed on eight pharmaceutical companies, including Pfizer and AstraZeneca, to help researchers find new therapeutic uses for 58 developed compounds. It has also funded development of three-dimensional chips that accurately model human organs to test the safety and success of a drug. “It's been a short time frame, and they've done a lot with not the largest budget in the world,” says Margaret Anderson, the executive director of the Washington, DC–based think tank FasterCures.
The NCATS team is working with an annual budget of $575 million, which they've used to build a staff of around 250 individuals thus far. Austin took office as head of the center on 23 September, his birthday.
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Matthews, S. NCATS gains first chief and positions for industry partnerships. Nat Med 18, 1447 (2012). https://doi.org/10.1038/nm1012-1447b