Low-profile pick for high-profile NIH job

Lawmakers scramble to glean critical views of prospect from Hopkins

March 07, 2002|By Susan Baer and Jonathan Bor | Susan Baer and Jonathan Bor,SUN STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Colleagues know Dr. Elias Zerhouni, the Johns Hopkins official expected to be tapped to lead the National Institutes of Health, to be a brilliant scientist and sharp administrator -- and one who has kept his views on the thorny bioethical issues of the day to himself.

But yesterday, as many on Capitol Hill and within the scientific community scrambled to learn anything about the executive vice dean of the Hopkins School of Medicine, social and religious conservatives said they were assured by the White House that Zerhouni would echo President Bush's vision on the complex issues that await the new director.

Conservatives said administration officials told them that the 50-year-old radiologist, born and raised in Algeria, shared their ideology and would not try to "subvert" the president's position on matters such as stem-cell research.

"I was told he was quietly pro-life," said Deal Hudson, editor and publisher of the Roman Catholic monthly, Crisis, and an adviser to the White House, "and that he was someone known to respect the ethical limits of research."

Hudson said he was assured that Zerhouni would support a bill by Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas banning all human cloning, including the cloning of embryos solely to harvest the specialized stem cells that might be used to treat disease. Hudson also said he was told that Zerhouni would back Bush's order to limit federally funded research on embryonic stem cells to cell lines already in existence.

Bush's position has been criticized by much of the scientific community, which believes such limits will severely hamper research that could provide therapies for diseases such as diabetes and Alzheimer's.

His search for a director of the health agency who was both a world-class scientist and a proponent of his conservative stand on issues such as stem-cell research has proved difficult. The director's post has been vacant for more than two years.

Zerhouni declined yesterday to comment on his expected nomination, which could come within the week. But colleagues said that along with his scholarship, he had a knack for business, administration and the tricky politics of academia.

Zerhouni has run Hopkins' medical practice plan -- the billing system for its doctors in private practice -- and more recently has steered efforts to redevelop 80 acres north of the East Baltimore campus into a biotechnology park.

"He's been successful at all levels," said Dr. Elliott Fishman, a professor of radiology. "He's a very, very smart guy, and well thought of inside and outside the institution."

At Hopkins, he has supported stem-cell research, working to find ways to use imaging devices to track stem cells once they are implanted into tissues.

Last year, when an anonymous donor gave $58.8 million to start a cell engineering institute that will focus on stem-cell research, Zerhouni helped to direct the recruitment of faculty and mold the direction the center will take.

"In science, very few things have happened that have had as much significance as what we are trying to do today," Zerhouni said at a news briefing where plans for the institutes were announced.

In supporting the Hopkins effort, however, he did not have to take public stances on the most controversial issues -- therapeutic cloning and creating new embryonic stem-cell lines besides the 60 that now exist. That's because Hopkins researchers use a bank of stem cells harvested from aborted fetuses, an approach that has not attracted intense debate.

Though Hopkins scientists have supported the use of embryonic stem cells and therapeutic cloning, Zerhouni's views on those issues are not widely known, and colleagues said they were puzzled on how he would navigate such matters as NIH chief.

Dr. John Gearhart, a stem-cell pioneer at Hopkins, said he has been impressed with Zerhouni's interest in stem cells but does not know how he would resolve the difficult questions. "He is very supportive of stem-cell biology," Gearhart said. "He certainly appreciates where the field is, where the work has to be done."

Zerhouni did not have a background in stem-cell biology but began meeting with Gearhart after the cell-engineering center plan was announced to learn more.

Sen. Bill Frist of Tennessee, a physician and Republican who often advises the White House on health-related matters, said he supported the expected nomination, especially because Zerhouni's work on stem-cell research "indicates a real commitment."

Although he favored fewer limits on federally funded embryonic stem-cell research than Bush, Frist said last year that he supported the president's compromise approach.

Some advisers to the White House on health-related matters said they were surprised at the selection of Zerhouni. "He was on no short list, no radar screen, none of that," said Kevin Wilson, legislative director of the American Society for Cell Biology.

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