PITTSBURGH (KDKA) — The National Institutes of Health is the nation’s medical research agency, responsible for making important discoveries that improve health and save lives.

Pittsburgh plays a part in making those discoveries.

In an exclusive interview, the director of the NIH sat down with KDKA Health Editor Dr. Maria Simbra to talk about his thoughts on research going on in Pittsburgh.

Pittsburgh is rich biomedical research, a claim to fame that is made possible in part by Dr. Francis Collins.

“I’m a physician and a scientist, and I’m the director of the National Institutes of Health, which is our nation’s major investment in biomedical research,” Dr. Collins told KDKA.

Before he became the NIH director, Dr. Collins headed the Human Genome Project – that is, figuring out the three billion letters of the human DNA code.

“You only do this once in all of human history,” said Dr. Collins. “One could argue that this is the most significant thing scientifically we have ever done, to read our own instruction book.”

It’s scientifically significant because it influences so much research now, even projects here in Pittsburgh. One example is the microbial genetics in bacterial slimes known as biofilms.

“Sometimes things go awry and the balance gets off and disease occurs, and we really haven’t had the ability to be systematic in understanding that, and now we can, and that’s one of the projects Pittsburgh is doing,” he said.

Also, inserting healthy genes into tissues for conditions where DNA has gone astray.

“Whether in the bone marrow or whether in some instances even in the brain or in the salivary glands, as is going on in Pittsburgh; very exciting potential, much of it still very research oriented, not quite ready for full-time application in the clinic, but it will get there,” Dr. Collins said.

For getting medicine from the research bench to the hospital bed more quickly, Pitt was given special NIH grant funding in the first round, an honor shaded with only 12 other centers

“Pittsburgh should be pretty proud of themselves for being an early success stories,” he added. “We’re counting on Pittsburgh to be a real hub of this kind of activity and for a lot of exciting things to emerge in the next few years.”

Not only is he a devoted scientist, but also devoutly spiritual. His journey from atheism to Christianity has led him to serve the Pope on the Pontifical Academy of Sciences.

“Certainly from my perspective, we should be having conversations where science and faith can appear in the same paragraph,” Dr. Collins said. “I needed both science and the spirit, as a means of trying to ask, and get answers to the most important questions, and I’ve never found them to be in conflict.”

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