Bush picks Hopkins dean to lead NIH

President sought both scientist, ally

March 06, 2002|By Susan Baer | Susan Baer,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

President Bush has decided to name a senior scientist and administrator at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine to become director of the National Institutes of Health, ending a long and politically sensitive search for new leadership, a government official confirmed last night.

Bush's choice to head the giant bio-medical research institution in Bethesda is Dr. Elias A. Zerhouni, executive vice dean of the medical school and a driving force behind the university's new Institute for Cell Engineering.

The president was expected to make the announcement as soon as the end of this week. The position had been vacant for two years, since the departure of Dr. Harold Varmus.

The administration has struggled to fill the prestigious and influential NIH post in a search for a director who was both a world class scientist and someone who would back Bush's hotly debated position limiting federal funding for embryonic stem cell research.

Without confirming the president's selection, one adviser to the White House, Deal Hudson, editor of Crisis magazine, a Roman Catholic monthly, said, "I can tell you the person chosen is a welcome name to people who want to see the president's vision carried out."

It was unclear last night what in Zerhouni's background or views gave social conservatives comfort. Last year, Zerhouni told a Johns Hopkins university publication, The Gazette, that research using cells as therapeutic agents has "enormous untapped potential to treat incurable diseases."

Until recently, Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases and a close adviser to Health And Human Services Secretary Tommy G. Thompson, was thought to be the top contender for the NIH job. But social conservatives said they raised objections to remarks Fauci has made supporting research that uses tissues from aborted fetuses.

Several months ago, Fauci had a meeting with Republican Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas, the sponsor of a bill to ban human cloning and a key opponent of embryonic stem cell research.

One Capitol Hill aide familiar with the meeting said, "Brownback came out of it not happy with what he heard."

A graduate of the Medical School at the University of Algiers, Zerhouni completed his radiologic training at Hopkins and has been a leading developer of magnetic resonance imaging methods. He is also the initiator of a collaborative effort between the Hopkins Medical Institutions and General Electric to research and develop new high-speed magnetic resonance imaging that will produce real-time movies of the human heart.

Zerhouni is considered a driving force in the creation of the School of Medicine's Institute for Cell Engineering, whose mission is to reprogram human cells and mold them into therapeutic transplants to treat conditions from Parkinson's, ALS and diabetes to heart failure, stroke and spinal cord injury. The institute, launched last year with a $58.5 million gift from an anonymous donor, is believed to be the first initiative of its kind at an academic center.

Zerhouni, who was not commenting on the expected appointment, would take on one of the most challenging jobs in government if confirmed by the Senate. NIH faces challenges from bio-terrorism to stem cell research to the search for cures for cancers and AIDS.

White House spokeswoman Anne Womack said finding "the best individual," a world class scientist who also had strong management and bureaucratic experience, has taken time.

"The president's priority has been finding the right fit," she said. "Not just filling the position to have it filled."

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