The NIH: Opportunities in the Digital Age

In his presentation, Gary H. Gibbons, MD, director of the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute at the National Institutes of Health, described the functions of his organization and discussed the potential for improvements in the understanding of disease states in the digital age.

Gary H. Gibbons, MD, director of the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), described how the sequester has affected the functions of his organization during the daily keynote address. Dr Gibbons explained how he had to cut $75 million from his budget, stating, “These are unprecedented times...we are going to have to become more nimble and resourceful.”

As stewards of the public’s resources, Dr Gibbons also stated that he believes in turning research into results. He pointed out that there has been a 60% reduction in cardiovascular events over the past 30 years. Additionally, he added that for less than a penny per day per American, the NIH has contributed to reductions in stroke and cardiovascular events. Dr Gibbons explained that he does not believe that health iniquities are an intractable problem. Rather, he believes in game-changing discoveries that may improve the ability to ask and answer questions. Pointing to the Framingham heart study, the relationship between smoking and health risk, and other basic fundamental discoveries, Dr Gibbons described how the NIH has contributed to many discoveries over the past several decades. He also noted the importance of statins and the role of the NIH in contributing to the development of these medications through training many of the key contributors to the creation of statins at the NIH.

Dr Gibbons also discussed the importance of sleep, and the potential for improvements in national productivity and decrease in effects of disease with advances in sleep. “It’s really a cross-cutting area...integrated across all areas of study both biologically and clinically,” he said. In a nod to the presentation by prior speaker Thomas Roth, PhD, Dr Gibbons spoke about the importance of the link between sleep disorders and conditions such as hypertension and other comorbidities such as obesity. Dr Gibbons explained that he believes in understanding the contributions of sleep to metabolic disease.

Noting the disparities among minority populations in weight gain and cardiovascular disease, as well as the association of sleep disturbance with childhood obesity, Dr Gibbons spoke about the importance of sleep research. While discussing the racial disparities in cardiovascular health and sleep, Dr Gibbons described how he collaborated with a population-based survey of African Americans in Metro Atlanta. He and colleagues found that over half of African Americans slept less than 6 hours per night. This sleep reduction was associated with obesity, increased stress, and an increased probability of developing diabetes. “It’s not difficult to imagine how these environmental factors might increase the risk of developing metabolic disease in these communities,” he said. In other words, shift work, environmental factors, and social disparities may contribute to the development of cardiovascular disease in the African American population.

Dr Gibbons explained that we have an opportunity to embrace the new digital age in biomedicine. And yet, it is possible that we have lagged. Drawing a comparison with online shopping sites, Dr Gibbons explained that similar strategies in management of large volumes of data may be utilized to help improve health outcomes in patients. With collaboration, Dr Gibbons explained that use of databases and analysis of data will improve the future of sleep medicine and medicine in general. With improved epidemiology measurement, understanding of diseases, and use of technology, we may gain a better understanding of the nature of many different diseases including cardiovascular disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and other common conditions.