Bush to Nominate Johns Hopkins School of Medicine Official as New NIH Director
President Bush has decided to nominate a senior scientist and administrator at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine to become the director of the NIH, "ending a long and politically sensitive search for new leadership," the Baltimore Sun reports. The nomination of Dr. Elias Zerhouni, executive vice dean of the medical school and a "driving force" behind the university's new cell engineering institute, is expected as soon as the end of the week. If confirmed by the Senate, Zerhouni would take over an agency that has been without a leader for two years at a time when it is facing various new challenges ranging from stem cell research to bioterrorism (Baer, Baltimore Sun, 3/6). Sources told the Washington Post that Zerhouni "met the administration's twin goals of a respected scientist who could live within Bush's ethical constraints on controversial research involving cloning and embryonic stem cells."
The selection of Zerhouni, a radiologist by training, ends a process that has been colored by the "emotional debate over cutting-edge biomedical research and abortion politics," the Post reports. Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, was thought to be the front-runner for the position, but HHS Secretary Tommy Thompson said yesterday that the White House had chosen not to nominate Fauci, an action for "which conservative activists took credit" because he was "deemed 'insufficiently pro-life.'" Congressional sources added that Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.), a proponent of banning all forms of human cloning, "led the fight against Fauci" after Fauci failed to "offer vocal support for strict limits on research." Zerhouni, on the other hand, may be
well-received by conservatives. Deal Hudson, editor of the Catholic magazine Crisis, said that Zerhouni "has put in writing support of the Brownback bill. That's a major signal he's given that he wants to support this administration's perspective on biomedical ethics." Brownback's Senate bill is identical to the one passed by the House in July that would ban all forms of human cloning (Connolly/Milbank, Washington Post, 3/6).
Zerhouni has been instrumental in creating Hopkins' Institute for Cell Engineering, which has a core mission to "reprogram human cells and mold them into therapeutic transplants" to treat conditions such as Parkinson's and Lou Gehrig's disease (Baltimore Sun, 3/6). The institute's work includes research on stem cells taken from human embryos. Some of Zerhouni's colleagues at the institute "speculated he would want to pursue stem cell research beyond the tight parameters set by Bush in August," which limited federally funded research to the estimated 60 stem cell lines developed before the president's announcement, the Post reports (Washington Post, 3/6). In addition, Zerhouni told a Hopkins publication last year that research using cells as therapeutic agents has "enormous untapped potential to treat incurable diseases" (Baltimore Sun, 3/6). But Myron Weisfeldt, chair of medicine at Hopkins, said that Zerhouni made the decision to "put significant resources into understanding stem cell biology ... with the understanding" that eventually researchers could use adult stem cells instead of relying on embryos. "As long as [Zerhouni] is not party to any effort to go beyond the existing stem cell lines, then he is well within the president's guidelines," Hudson said (Washington Post, 3/6).This is part of the California Healthline Daily Edition, a summary of health policy coverage from major news organizations. Sign up for an email subscription.