A Groundbreaking Geneticist Takes the Helm of the National Institutes of Health
When nominated last year by President Obama to head the prestigious National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, Maryland, Francis Collins, a physician and scientist noted for his landmark discoveries of genes and diseases and for guiding the groundbreaking Human Genome Project to completion, no doubt, reflected with a sense of pride and irony on how far his stellar career had come.
Raised on a small farm in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley, Francis (the youngest of four sons) was home-schooled by his mother until the sixth grade. Throughout most of his high school and college years, Francis aspired to become a chemist and ironically had little interest in what he then considered the "messy" field of biology – the field that would later encompass much of his professional life. Earning his B.S. degree in Chemistry from the University of Virginia and later his Ph.D. in Physical Chemistry from Yale University, Francis had an awakening at Yale during a biochemistry course in biochemistry that changed his life. The course sparked his interest in the molecules that hold the blueprint for life: DNA and RNA, which led him to realize that a scientific and medical revolution was on the horizon in molecular biology and genetics. As a result, Francis switched his field of specialization and enrolled in medical school at the University of North Carolina at Chapel where he later earned his M.D.
The “revolution” in molecular biology and genetics that excited Francis, soon gave rise to the Human Genome Project, the massive worldwide endeavor among scientists to identify and sequence the estimated 30,000 genes in human DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) to better understand how we might diagnose and treat human disorders.
After being nominated last summer by President Obama, and confirmed by the U.S. Senate, to head the NIH— the nation’s top governmental agency responsible for conducting and overseeing medical research and programs designed to improve the health of the nation – Francis has been focused on leading the NIH’s 27 institutes and centers which together employ 18,000 people. The agency has a budget of $31 billion, about 80 percent which is distributed to scientists elsewhere for research. One look at Francis’ formidable career accomplishments and you will know why he was picked for such an important, high-profile position. Among his achievements:
• While involved with the Human Genome Project, Francis developed an important technique for identifying genes and went on to identify those involved in cystic fibrosis and neurofibromatosis, among other conditions. He was the first director of NIH's National Human Genome Research Institute.
• In recent years, he has been a champion of "personalized medicine," which he hopes to harvest the fruits of the genomics revolution in the form of better and safer clinical care.
• Francis spearheaded the federal government's efforts to finish the sequencing of the human genome before it could be completed by J. Craig Venter, a former NIH scientist who took on the task from the private sector. The two finished a draft of the sequence in a cooperative dead heat celebrated in a White House ceremony with President Bill Clinton in June 2000.
• While at Yale following his medical residency, he developed a technique called "positional cloning" that helps biologists locate genes scattered through the huge, linear mass of DNA. However challenging his duties are as NIH chief and scientist, Francis, with his boyish mop of (now graying) blond hair, still knows how to have fun. . He is a guitarist and vocalist for "The Directors," a rock band comprised of NIH scientists and executives plays about three gigs a year.
Also a noted author, Francis, a devout born-again Christian, penned The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief (Free Press, 2006), which spent many weeks on the New York Times bestseller list. He has that recently completed a new book on personalize medicine, The Language of Life: DNA and the Revolution in Personalized Medicine (HarperCollins, to be published in early 2010). In 2007 he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civil award, for his revolutionary contributions to genetic research.
But he is especially known and respected among scientists and colleagues as a multi-faceted researcher, communicator and administrator. “Whatever he touches, he does very well,” says Stephen Katz, head of the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases.
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