“The fact that it’s a band of NIH people makes it special for me because we often get to lend our talents to medical and research-related charity events,” says Grayson, 43, who lives in Chevy Chase and works under O’Shea as head of the vasculitis clinical research program.
“I’m young, but this has been the highlight of my career,” Grayson says of his work at NIH. “My goal is to take it [to] the next level, to be able to leverage new ways to acknowledge and assess the disease to get more effective treatments.” If that sounds impressive, Grayson insists: “Compared to [other] people in that band, I’m a big nobody.”
Like others in the group, Grayson started playing in a high school band. Collins was in a folk music band called The Castaways, “and we [needed] to be cast away as soon as possible,” he jokes. Media savvy, Collins occasionally tweets about the band if the performance is at NIH. “But not so often,” he says, “because my Twitter feed is supposed to be more proper and not so wild into rock and roll.”
The band has no formal hierarchy, though it’s undeniable that Collins is the top dog at NIH. “I don’t realize it’s a big thing until my friends [tell me], and then they get starstruck,” says Rose Graf, 24, who plays alto sax and xylophone and works at the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases. “I mean to me, I just know him as Francis, nice guy.”
But some band members are un-abashedly in awe. Guitar player Ivan Vujkovic-Cvijin, who holds a doctorate in research science, recalls one rehearsal when Collins was telling him about “research on the amazing concept of mitigating harmful effects of opioids through vaccines that stimulate antibody responses against the drugs, and then moments later detailing modern gene-editing strategies to eliminate HIV viral genomes from infected patients to create a cure.”
“Oh man, he’s incredible,” says Vujkovic-Cvijin, who works at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease. “I mean, it’s really exciting to be able to hear about all the policy decisions and the future directions of science.”
For some members, the band is pure fun; for others, like Collins, it’s a way to release stress. “Being part of the band provides a joyful experience of working together as a team with other talented and fun-loving scientist/musicians,” he says. “When inspired instrumental riffs and sweet harmony emerge from our band, it’s a total rush. You can’t be stressed out after those magical moments.”
Collins, who became NIH director in 2009 and lives in Chevy Chase, believes there is a correlation between music and science. “The proportion of scientists who play a musical instrument is much higher than the general population,” he says. “And there’s increasing awareness of the connection between music and health. In the very near future, NIH will award its first set of solicited grants specifically focusing on how music interacts with the human brain, and its role in everything from childhood education to music therapy for victims of PTSD, Parkinson’s disease and stroke.”
John O’Shea plays mandolin, drums, “whatever is needed,” he says, but mostly guitar. At work, he oversees a staff of 250 and an annual budget of $60 million. “Being a musician and performer—especially with the kind of music we play—combines discipline, devotion to craft, effective teamwork, and attention to detail mixed with creativity, spontaneity and confidence,” he says. “These attributes are a good combination for a productive scientist.”
O’Shea came to NIH in 1981 on a research fellowship to find a drug that could cure vasculitis, a rare autoimmune disease that causes inflammation of the blood vessels and can lead to potentially fatal tissue and organ damage. At NIH, O’Shea and his team discovered a gene, Janus kinase 3, which led to a 25-year collaboration with the pharmaceutical company Pfizer and a new class of drugs, Janus kinase inhibitors.
“My goal was to come up with better treatments for autoimmune disease,” O’Shea says. “I didn’t expect things to work out as well as they did.” The best-known drug, tofacitinib, marketed as Xeljanz, was advertised during the Super Bowl in February. It is approved by the Food and Drug Administration for the treatment of rheumatoid arthritis, psoriatic arthritis and ulcerative colitis.
In a sense, O’Shea serves as the group’s institutional memory. During a prerehearsal dinner at Lenardo’s house this past summer, he recalls a controversial case from the early 1980s involving Ling-Ling, one of the first giant pandas at the National Zoo. The panda had a bacterial kidney infection. According to The Washington Post, doctors at Children’s Hospital recommended dialysis for the panda and lent dialysis machines to the zoo hospital. NIH got involved as consultants, O’Shea says, and instead recommended antibiotics, which worked. However, he recalls, “It was a political nightmare.”