Zerhouni To Be 15th NIH Director
By Rich McManus
On the Front Page...
Dr. Elias Zerhouni (pronounced eh-LEE-as zer-HOO-nee) was confirmed, by unanimous voice vote of the full U.S. Senate on May 2, to become 15th director of the National Institutes of Health. Two days earlier, at a 75-minute confirmation hearing before the Senate committee on health, education, labor, and pensions chaired by Sen. Ted Kennedy (which also voted unanimously to confirm), Zerhouni offered a preliminary vision of his plans for NIH, which include relying not only on the creative spark of the individual scientist, but also on a "new science" approach emphasizing multidisciplinary teams working in concert.
A successful administrator, entrepreneur, basic scientist and clinician himself during more than a quarter century at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, Zerhouni, who appeared with his mother, his wife Nadia and three children, as well as with a friend from his native Algeria whom he has known since the sixth grade, fielded mostly compliments from Kennedy's committee, who called him a "rare find," an encapsulation of the American dream, and a man whose trademark humility should not, in the words of Sen. John Warner (R-Va.), prevent him from "going at it with both fists [in Congress] to get everything you can get for NIH."
Committee members Sen. Paul Sarbanes of Maryland, along with Sen. Barbara Mikulski, also of Maryland, offered introductory biographical details about Zerhouni (see below). Establishing a friendly tone from the outset, Sarbanes even told the hearing that his wife, a schoolteacher, had instructed Zerhouni's daughter Yasmin and gained "a very positive impression of the family."
Zerhouni who has also been vice dean for research at Hopkins, as well as a member of the National Academy of Science's Institute of Medicine since 2000, and has served on NCI's board of scientific advisors since 1998 acknowledged that advances in genome and stem cell science have given rise to "deep moral issues" and that the debate over such issues "can be polarizing." He said he had made a series of personal visits with senators to discuss his views on these and other issues, and concluded, "Disease knows no politics NIH must serve all of us...it must not be factional, but must remain factual." NIH's role is to present data to inform debate on moral issues, he said.
One of his greatest recent successes at Hopkins was securing funds to establish an Institute of Cell Engineering, which is expected to take advantage of stem cell research, an area where federal funding has lagged to date, he said.
He completed his opening statement by acknowledging the outstanding service of Dr. Ruth Kirschstein, who has been acting NIH director since Jan. 1, 2000 (she was also hailed by virtually every member of the committee, and was recognized with an ovation) and the advice of NIH's last director, Dr. Harold Varmus. "Both have been very helpful to me during this process," said Zerhouni.
Echoing a sentiment he expressed at his Mar. 26 nomination ceremony at the White House, Zerhouni concluded, "As an immigrant, I am very touched by being here today. It says about our great country what no other country can say about itself."
Kennedy began the questioning, asking Zerhouni what he hoped to achieve as director. "I want to reestablish morale and momentum, and provide the vision and energy to recruit a number of institute directors in order to make the agency even more effective than it has been," Zerhouni said. He added that priority-setting would be a major challenge. "Science is evolving at such a pace that cross-cutting initiatives need to be encouraged," he continued. He said he would work to enhance interactions among scientists, identify bottlenecks to research progress and address them.
He also said scientists need more resources, and proposed a National Molecular Library, which could quickly provide researchers with biological molecules of interest. "That's my own notion," he cautioned. "I haven't yet sought the advice of my peers." He also mused about a National Institute of Emerging Biotechnologies, to take advantage of a broad range of breakthroughs in such areas as nanotechnology.
On other issues, Zerhouni said he would live within established guidelines on stem cells and conduct such research in an "open and transparent" manner; emphasized that NIH should play a major role in "ingraining a culture of safety" in trials involving humans; explained that clinical trials have their own "ecosystem" that must be managed and understood; and maintained NIH must do more to understand the self-destructive behaviors that lie behind much preventable disease.
Asked a very broad question by Mikulski concerning managing everything from fire trucks to Nobel Prize winners, along with recruiting and retaining minority investigators, Zerhouni calmly admitted that he didn't have a catch-all answer in his pocket. Mikulski laughed, "I'm sure the White House warned you not to break new ground or break any knuckles today." Zerhouni said the loss of capable minorities was the number-one problem in biomedical training, observing that science does a good job of attracting such trainees, but a poor job of keeping them. "It took me 5 years to break in to being funded by NIH," he commiserated. "I think role models could play an important role in enticing new scientists to stay."
Kennedy ended the hearing by congratulating President Bush on nominating such a strong candidate. "I think our country is very fortunate to have Dr. Zerhouni at the helm of the NIH, and the world is, too."
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