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Transfusion of Optimism Takes
Secretary Thompson Gets Impressive Look at NIH

By Rich McManus

Photos by Bill Branson, John Crawford

On the Front Page...

Calling himself both humbled and deeply impressed by the breadth and scope of NIH research, HHS Secretary Tommy Thompson spent the morning of Feb. 28 touring laboratories, visiting patients, and getting updates on cutting-edge research here before wrapping up his visit with a half-hour press conference in Wilson Hall at which he repeated President Bush's intention to boost NIH's budget in 2002 by $2.75 billion, "the largest single year increase ever for NIH."


The gabbling hall fell silent as the new secretary, formerly governor of Wisconsin, walked in and mounted the podium with several NIH officials led by acting director Dr. Ruth Kirschstein.

HHS Secretary Tommy Thompson meets press during first NIH visit.

"Let me first start off by thanking you, Dr. Kirschstein," said Thompson. "You've done an outstanding job leading this wonderful institution...Thank you for being my friend and for being an outstanding director."

Clearly moved by his encounters with patients and researchers just moments before, he said, "Just to see what we're doing as a country in the area of medical research is very impressive. I don't know if the people really realize it...Most Americans don't realize that the world's greatest doctors are right here at NIH...I am humbled to be secretary of this department."

He thanked Drs. David Harlan, head of the NIDDK/Navy Transplantation and Autoimmunity Branch, and Clifford Lane, NIAID clinical director and HIV researcher, for briefing him on advances in those fields, and spoke of the patients he had met, including a husband whose wife had donated him a kidney. "What more noble cause could there be than organ donation," Thompson said, adding, "Sixty-one hundred Americans lose their lives each year due to shortages of organs." He returned to the theme of organ donation repeatedly during his press availability, at one point jokingly suggesting that the doors to the room be locked until everyone had signed a donor card.

The new secretary, though focused and serious, showed an affable, quipping side. "On the drive out here I felt right at home when I realized that NIH was on Wisconsin Ave. It's great to know that NIH is on it."

Thompson and NIH acting director Dr. Ruth Kirschstein are greeted by Dr. John Gallin, Clinical Center director.

Before ceding the podium to several IC directors, Thompson said, "I salute all of the scientists who are carrying out research all over the country with NIH funding...I also salute the patients who have placed their faith in this institution...President Bush and I certainly recognize the importance of NIH. That's why the budget we are proposing will be the largest single year increase ever for NIH — $2.75 billion, or a 13.6 percent increase. This will support the highest number of research projects ever, all over the country."

NCI director Dr. Richard Klausner noted that the current effort in Congress to double NIH's budget over a 5-year period left him sitting in "a very privileged, lucky place. It is a most extraordinary time in medicine — the sails are up and the wind remains in those sails...We deeply appreciate what we'll be able to do with this continued support."

Dr. Duane Alexander, director of NICHD, said the new budget "gives us resources to match our opportunities...We can begin applying the discoveries of the Human Genome Project in prevention of birth defects, low birthweight," and other ills.

"We are always asked, 'Can you well use the funds that you are getting?' and the resounding response is 'Yes, we can!'" said NIAID director Dr. Anthony Fauci. He accompanied Thompson on a tour of the 8th floor HIV unit at the Clinical Center, pointing out advances. "There has been extraordinary progress in the development of drugs, which has turned around the complexion of this epidemic," Fauci reported. "We are very, very happy to be in partnership with you."

Dr. Vivian Pinn, director of NIH's Office of Research on Women's Health, had an advantage over everyone else on the dais: Thompson had told her that she is a favorite of his wife, who founded and still runs a women's health organization in Wisconsin. "She told me I had to meet (Pinn) because she's the greatest woman in America," Thompson noted.

"I'm delighted to know that your wife has pointed out the importance of research on women's health at NIH," Pinn said. Echoing delight at the increase in resources, she assured the secretary that ORWH "will focus mainly on prevention of chronic diseases, and emphasize healthy living...We are also addressing the health of men, not just women in isolation. We are investigating disparities in the health of women and men."

NIDDK director Dr. Allen Spiegel, who was also on the tour of the transplant unit, pointed out the ravages of diabetes, and advised Thompson that new drug breakthroughs dramatically cut both the cost and the volume of pills taken by patients who have received a donated kidney.

"We only had time for a few of the IC directors to report to you today," Kirschstein said, "but I can assure you that we will use (the budget increase) well, we will have appropriate stewardship, and we are delighted to receive those funds."

Some two dozen reporters then posed questions that Thompson handled with an almost disarming directness. Asked whether the new budget will target any specific program, he replied, "It's not up to me to decide. It's up to the institutes. They are the experts. But I did ask for more money for hearing research — I lost the hearing in my right ear and I'd like to get it back."

Thompson answers query.

He displayed an awareness of problems facing the research enterprise: "We've got all kinds...Retention is one. How do we convince these wonderful individuals to stay here and do research? How do we get young people to go into biomedical research? Can we do something more as a government, as a country, to attract young investigators? There's also a huge nursing shortage coming up — how do we deal with that? Also, how do we get more people to sign a donor card? Everyone in this room should sign one before they leave."

Thompson paused in his litany of obstacles to say, "I've got more hope and more optimism than I came out here with. I'm impressed."

Asked the inevitable question about the Bush administration's position on stem cell research, he deadpanned, "I'm shocked!" (at getting the question), but assured the audience that the administration will "review questions of research and legal authority...and we will decide in time to (make decisions about) grants being applied for at this time. There will be no hold-up of dollars."

A math lesson came next as a reporter wondered if the $2.75 billion increase really kept up with the doubling effort; Thompson said the increase, coupled with a $4.1 billion increase next year, would achieve the goal.

To questions of science and its priorities, Thompson ceded expertise to others. "Of course I'd like immediate results in the most promising areas, but that's not my decision — it's NIH's," he said at one point. "That's the nice thing about NIH: peer review. You send in your application and it gets expert review."

Thompson joked that when he was governor, if he had a good idea in the middle of the night, there was a good chance of seeing it accomplished the following day. "Now when I get a good idea, I go to OMB (Office of Management and Budget)" to see if he has permission.

Asked where we are in the process of naming a "permanent" NIH director, Thompson said, "I have learned that the process in Washington does not move very rapidly. But this is very high on my agenda, and we'll move as fast as we possibly can. I've gotten some great names (of candidates) from the NIH leadership here today, and we're in the process of interviewing. The White House has some names, too. I'd like to have Ruth's advice as well. But it's just amazing, this process."

Neither the secretary nor Kirschstein wanted to get too deeply into a question about the proliferation of NIH institutes and centers, nor did Thompson care to speculate on how budget largesse for NIH would affect other science institutions. He concluded, "I'm fighting very hard for NIH and CDC to get the dollars they need to carry out their wonderful research...As the days go by, I gain more and more respect for the caliber of people we have working for the department. We have the best doctors, the best scientists, and the best researchers in the world working at HHS. I'm humbled by that."

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