Zerhouni, former NIH director, to speak at Jan. 22 event

Jan. 15, 2013

by Terry Devitt

Elias Zerhouni, director of the National Institutes of Health from 2002 to 2008, will be in Madison Jan. 22 at the invitation of BioForward, the association that represents Wisconsin’s bioscience industry.

Now president of global research and development for the pharmaceutical company Sanofi, Zerhouni will speak at the association’s Madison monthly breakfast from 7:30 to 9 a.m. at the MGE Innovation Center, 510 Charmany Drive, in University Research Park.

In an interview, Zerhouni spoke about about several topics, including the role of science at major universities and technology's role in the cost of modern drugs:

Photo: Elias Zerhouni

Zerhouni

What is your advice to academic researchers living in today’s hyper-competitive, resource constrained world?

Right now, the best opportunities in the life sciences are in the fundamental understanding of biological systems. Researchers need to stay focused on these important scientific problems, even if they are particularly challenging. 

Scientists should also make increasing use of multi- and inter-disciplinary approaches to tackling the complex biological systems we are trying to understand and address the diseases we hope to solve.  There is a greater chance of success when research teams are comprised of biologists, physicians, engineers, computer scientists, chemists and others to ensure problems are examined from many angles.

Times are tough and there are many good researchers competing for limited resources.  There are many opportunities for creative collaborations and I encourage researchers to seek funding from many sources.  In spite of the competitiveness in the academic environment, collaboration is essential. Having been vice dean of research at Johns Hopkins, NIH director, and now head of R&D at Sanofi, I have seen some great science and work with brilliant researchers -- but I’ve also learned that no one company or institution has all of the answers.

Collaboration across industry, academia, and government will be pivotal to the successful translation of scientific discoveries into treatments that benefit patients. There are good opportunities for academic researchers to tap into this collaborative environment to further their research. So, don’t lose faith, in spite of resource constraints.

What is your advice to young people exploring career paths in medicine or biomedicine?

My advice to young people is to associate with the best institutions and programs, and within these programs actively seek out mentors with a track record of success in developing young talent. Young researchers must take charge of their careers, seek funding from a range of sources, and focus the emerging areas of science that he/she finds most exciting. In the end, each scientist has the highest likelihood of success when he/she follows their passions and aims to be truly outstanding in at least one scientific arena.

If you were at the controls of a large research university, how would you change the way the academic research/graduate education enterprise operates to optimize limited resources and breed success stories?

I would continue to break disciplinary and departmental barriers and allow more free associations and self assembly of scientists and teams around exciting and innovative projects that focus on important scientific issues.

We also need to create more flexibility within our current system of graduate education to allow more independent research earlier in careers than is permitted today.

How can research universities better demonstrate the value of basic science?

Basic science is crucial to innovation; however, it requires both time and sustained support. Basic science seeks out new knowledge. Ultimately, basic discoveries must connect to applied science so that society can reap the benefits.  To this end, research universities must encourage more communication and engagement of their basic scientists with society at large to help ensure that the connection between basic science and goals to improve health are more visible.

Technology seems to play a big role in the high cost of modern drugs. Can technology lower the cost of our medicines?

In my opinion, our medical system suffers from the sometimes inappropriate (overuse) of technology and not of a lack of technological innovation per se. The core challenge facing us is how to effectively and efficiently usher in technological advances and scientific discoveries that have the potential to reduce the costs and the burdens of chronic diseases on our healthcare system.

This can only happen if we are willing to re-invent medicine and the way we develop and use technology.