Obama Picks Francis Collins as New NIH Director

By David Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 8, 2009; 9:41 PM

President Obama yesterday nominated Francis S. Collins, a physician and scientist who helped guide the Human Genome Project to completion, to be the next director of the National Institutes of Health.

Collins, 59, developed an important technique for identifying genes and went on to identify those involved in cystic fibrosis and neurofibromatosis, among other conditions. He was the first director of NIH's National Human Genome Research Institute.

In recent years, he has been a champion of "personalized medicine," which hopes to harvest the fruits of the genomics revolution in the form of better and safer clinical care.

Rare among world-class scientists, Collins is also a born-again Christian, which may help him build bridges with those who view some gene-based research as a potential threat to religious values.

Collins resigned as director of NIH's genome institute last August and has since finished "The Language of Life," a book about the dawning era of personalized medicine, which will be published next year.

If confirmed by the Senate, Collins will lead the NIH's 27 institutes and centers, which together employ 18,000 people, most at the Bethesda campus. The agency has a budget of $31 billion this year, about 80 percent of which is distributed to scientists elsewhere.

Collins would take over from Raynard Kington, who was named acting director last fall after Elias A. Zerhouni, NIH director during the Bush administration, resigned.

"I like it," Alan I. Leshner, chief executive of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, said of the Obama administration's choice. "Francis Collins is a guy who can speak to top-notch scientists and at the same time has a tremendous skill speaking to the public and policymakers."

The head of the Association of American Universities, Robert M. Berdahl, said Collins "is acutely aware of the public policy and ethical implications of medical science," noting his "passionate advocacy" for the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act, which is intended to both protect the privacy of and ensure the access to medical care of people with gene-based diseases.

With a boyish mop of (now graying) blond hair, Collins was the face of the federal government's efforts to finish the sequencing of the 3 billion-letter human genome before it could be completed by J. Craig Venter, a former NIH scientist who took on the task from the private sector. The two finished a draft of the sequence in a cooperative dead heat celebrated in a White House ceremony with President Bill Clinton in June 2000.

The government-led consortium of labs went on to fill in the gaps, officially finishing the genome in April 2003.

Originally predicted to take 15 years and cost $3 billion, the sequencing of the human genome came in 18 months early and nearly $300 million under budget.

After that, Collins kept money flowing to sequence other organisms -- including yeast, mustard plant, platypus and dog -- in an effort to understand and make useful the human genome.

Reared in Staunton, Va., Collins graduated from the University of Virginia, got doctorate in physical chemistry at Yale University and a medical degree at the University of North Carolina.

After a residency in internal medicine at UNC, he returned to Yale, where he developed a technique called "positional cloning" that helps biologists locate genes scattered through the huge, linear mass of DNA.

He worked at the University of Michigan as a "gene hunter" from 1984 to 1993, when he came to the NIH to take over the leadership of the human genome center from James D. Watson, the co-discoverer of the structure of DNA. The center became a full-fledged institute in 1997.

Collins, who had a conversion experience in medical school, in 2007 published a book, "The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief." He is also a guitarist and vocalist for "The Directors," a rock band comprised of NIH scientists and executives that plays about three gigs a year.

"He is a fabulous guitarist and has a marvelous voice," said one of his band-mates, Stephen I. Katz, head of the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases. "Whatever he touches he does very well."

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