BETHESDA, Md. -- Harold Varmus, the new head of the NationalInstitutes of Health, on Wednesday described the agency'sfuture under his leadership.

Speaking to the Washington, D.C., Science Writers Association,Varmus said he favors collaborations with industry as long ascompanies do not try to exploit such relationships, as Sandozdid when it tried to acquire first rights to every newdevelopment to come out of the Scripps Research Institute overa five-year period. Varmus' predecessor, Bernadine Healy, alsoopposed the Sandoz-Scripps collaboration, which is now beingrewritten.

"I encourage the idea that industry would ... sponsor oneproject or laboratory" or provide money without designatingthe money for specific projects, said Varmus. He suggested thata drug company might contribute funding to an institution andask the institution how the money might best be spent.

Those projects would be funded and industry would have firstrights, but not for anything that's done at the institution, saidVarmus. "You (would) have a problem knowing who has rightsto these things when institutions also receive funds from NIH."

Varmus also opposes agreements giving companies rights offirst and second refusal for future projects in collaborationswith government-sponsored entities because that could barsmall companies from access to research that has been paid forwith federal funds.

"Our intention is to comply with the spirit of the Bayh-Dole Actof 1980 and be sure what we do in university laboratories withthe support of federal money is carried into the private sectorfor development," said Varmus. "We want to feel thatagreements reached between academia and companies are inthe public interest."

Unlike Healy, Varmus is concerned that price controls withincollaborative research and development agreements (CRADAs)have been scaring off industry. Industry observers, however,have said the controls are not stringently enforced and may beunenforceable

Varmus warned that he will be constrained by a budget thathas been virtually frozen, once inflation is taken into account.Nonetheless, he plans to improve the agency by making itfunction more efficiently.

To that end, Varmus said he would continue Healy's plan tocentralize technology transfer. Currently, each institute carriesout its own technology transfer, which makes it verycumbersome for companies to work with NIH.

Varmus also plans to streamline the way grants are reviewedand beef up the intellectual power of the study sections. Hehopes to see more grants funded where research isimaginative, but "we all know that the (constraints of thefunding caps) are not going to mean the success rate of NIHapplicants is going to go from 23 to 45 percent."

Varmus also hinted that funding for women's health studiescould be reduced. "I doubt my reign will be as closelyidentified with it" as Healy's, he said. Varmus was skepticalabout an upcoming $660 million dietary study among women,for example, and said he would scrutinize the study carefully.

In addition, health care reform could affect funding foracademic health centers, where clinical trials take place. "Thereis a set-aside in one version (of the health care reformpackage) for post-graduate training at academic healthcenters," said Varmus. "That, in my view, is not going to besufficient to handle what I assume is a return to academichealth centers from patient care payments in a way that helpssupport research at universities. But the final bill hasn't beenwritten yet."

Varmus also said he will benefit from Healy's victories ingaining appointments to NIH. In trying to bring Francis Collinsto NIH, Healy waged a high-pitched, precedent-setting battlethat eliminated some of the bureaucratic formalities of theagency, "and this has been very good for me," said Varmus.

Varmus credits Healy's path clearing with his ability tosidestep the bureaucracy in making appointments and with thefact that he was able to bring his own laboratory to NIH.

-- David C. Holzman Washington Editor

(c) 1997 American Health Consultants. All rights reserved.