Johns Hopkins administrator is nominated to direct NIH

Bush also taps Hispanic, former Green Beret to be surgeon general

March 27, 2002|By Susan Baer | Susan Baer,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - President Bush moved yesterday to fill two top federal health jobs, nominating a trauma surgeon who is also a sheriff's deputy as surgeon general and Dr. Elias Zerhouni, an administrator at the Johns Hopkins University, to direct the National Institutes of Health.

At a White House ceremony with the nominees and their families, Bush praised the two doctors, both of whom spoke of their humble beginnings, as "distinguished physicians who have worked tirelessly to save lives and to improve lives."

Bush indicated that he believes Zerhouni will support the strict White House limits on government-sponsored work using embryonic stem cells and its opposition to cloning of human cells.

Both nominations must be confirmed by the Senate, which is not likely to begin considering either position for several weeks.

In naming Dr. Richard Carmona, 52, to become surgeon general, the nation's chief health educator, Bush selected a little-known former Army Green Beret, a Hispanic, Harlem-born nurse, doctor and SWAT team member whose colorful, swashbuckling life story includes the rescue of a helicopter crash survivor and a shootout with a suspected murderer.

"Dr. Carmona has redefined the term `hands-on medicine,'" Bush joked.

He said he thought twice about Carmona's nomination after hearing that the doctor once dangled out of a moving helicopter as part of a rescue mission.

"I worried that maybe he wasn't the best guy to educate our Americans about reducing health risks," Bush chuckled.

Zerhouni, 50, executive vice dean at the Hopkins School of Medicine, said that when he and his wife immigrated to America from Algeria 27 years ago with $300 in his pocket, "no family and no friends," he could not have dreamed that one day he would be offered such a lofty position.

"It is my distinct honor to be considered for the directorship of the National Institutes of Health," Zerhouni said. "It is the agency that is the driving force behind our nation's pre-eminence in the biomedical sciences."

Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, the Massachusetts Democrat whose committee oversees health-related nominees, pledged to hold hearings promptly.

He called Zerhouni "a distinguished scientist with an impressive career as a scientific administrator" and said he looked forward to learning more about Carmona, whose selection came as a surprise to many.

If confirmed, Zerhouni would lead the nation's premier biomedical research institute, which has grown significantly in recent years, with its budget doubling to a proposed $27 billion for 2003, from $13.6 billion in 1998.

Functioning without a director for the past two years, since the departure of Harold Varmus, a Nobel Prize winner, the NIH confronts a slate of complex and contentious issues, such as stem-cell research and therapeutic cloning, bioterror and vaccine development.

The administration has struggled for months to find a candidate who fit the president's twin goals of being both a distinguished scientist and one comfortable with the strict limits Bush favors in such ethically sensitive areas as stem-cell research and cloning.

Much of the scientific community believes that stem cells, derived from embryos and aborted fetuses as well as adults, offer great promise in the treatment of a variety of diseases.

But opponents, including anti-abortion groups and religious conservatives, want to ban stem-cell research that uses embryos because of their belief that a human life was destroyed to obtain the cells.

Bush has proposed limiting research on embryonic stem cells to cell lines already in existence, a position deemed unsatisfactory to much of the medical community.

Yesterday, Bush suggested that Zerhouni supported his position, noting that the Hopkins doctor and administrator "shares my view that human life is precious and should not be exploited or destroyed for the benefits of others."

In leading the NIH, Bush said, "Dr. Zerhouni will be at the forefront of our efforts to promote biomedical research with a careful regard for the bounds of medical ethics."

Zerhouni, chairman of the radiology department at Hopkins, helped create a cell engineering institute at the university and has been a proponent of stem-cell research in general. His Hopkins colleagues have pioneered stem-cell research using cells from aborted fetuses - which has received less attention than has work that uses embryonic stem cells.

Zerhouni's views on such issues were not widely known. But social and religious conservatives who advise the Bush administration said they were assured that Zerhouni would back the president's positions as well as a bill in Congress to ban all human cloning, even for therapeutic uses.

Asked whether both nominees shared Bush's opposition to human cloning and embryonic stem-cell research, Ari Fleischer, Bush's spokesman, said, "I don't think you would expect the president to appoint people who hold wildly different views than he does."

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