Chief geneticist steps down

Collins credited with setting stage for medical progress

May 29, 2008|By Jonathan D. Rockoff | Jonathan D. Rockoff,Sun reporter

WASHINGTON - The government's leading geneticist announced yesterday that he is stepping down after 15 years, paving the way for the growing role that DNA will play in medical care.

As director of the National Human Genome Research Institute, Dr. Francis S. Collins led the successful effort to sequence the human genome and helped secure a new law, signed just last week, barring discrimination based on genetic information. He also shepherded significant advances in understanding the genetic causes of common diseases, while attempting to reassure a public concerned about the ethical implications of the fast-moving developments.

"He has put us where we can now move from the genome to health - to use the fruits of the human genome project to improve the health of American citizens," said Dr. Joe Leigh Simpson, president of the American College of Medical Genetics.

Collins, 58, is known as a top-notch scientist who can translate complicated details into ordinary language, a government official equally adept on C-SPAN and Comedy Central's Colbert Report. As head of the genome institute, he pushed for various projects, including the sequencing of the human genome, initially viewed as time-consuming and costly, with a relentless and ultimately accurate optimism about their prospects.

In a conference call with reporters, Collins painted his resignation in sunny terms, saying he was looking forward to taking a sabbatical from public service after finishing the human genome project and launching follow-up initiatives. "It's been a marvelous ride," he said.

Collins said he especially wanted to write more. In 2006, he wrote a book, The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief, that described his journey from atheist to believer and explored the complementary connections between science and faith. He said he now wants to write a book explaining the future of medical care tailored to the patient.

His resignation takes effect on Aug. 1. Dr. Alan E. Guttmacher, the NHGRI's deputy director, who is from Baltimore, will replace Collins on an acting basis. Collins said he would continue serving as a voluntary adviser.

The next director faces a range of thorny scientific and policy issues, such as spearheading research into the genetic factors behind complex diseases and making sure physicians develop a working knowledge of genetics that they can integrate into their practices. Collins said a major challenge is improving government oversight of genetic tests, especially those sold directly to consumers, that assess a patient's risk of developing an inherited disease.

Friends and colleagues were caught off-guard by the announcement, but said it made sense.

"What scientist do you know who got a major research project - the human genome project - and a major piece of legislation passed?" said Tim Leshan, the genome institute's policy chief from 2001 to 2006.

Karen H. Rothenberg, dean of the University of Maryland School of Law, who often collaborates with Collins, said it wasn't easy to run a government science institute.

"It's a lot to ask anybody to be in such a political position and serve so many heads of NIH and politicians for so long," she said.

Nonetheless, Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said Collins gave him the impression during a talk on Tuesday night that the high stress of leading an institute wasn't a factor in the decision to leave.

"He's accomplished an incredible amount. He did what he set out to do. And I think he wants to look forward to different challenges," Fauci said.

In an e-mail to friends and colleagues, Collins said he had been weighing his departure for a while. He told reporters that the passage of the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act was a key factor, and said Dr. Elias A. Zerhouni, the NIH director, tried to talk him out of stepping down.

Collins may have given the best explanation for his decision in a commencement address early this month. He advised new graduates of the University of Maryland, Baltimore, to "nurture the four food groups of a balanced life," which he said were work, faith, love and fun. To further describe fun, he took out a guitar, joked that "I always wanted to play the 1st Mariner Arena" and began strumming his own version of "My Way."

"With me, I hope you'll see the double helix is a highway," he sang.

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