Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Francis Collins to leave NIH

I know several of you have a keen interest in the world of genetics - and some of us have met Dr. Collins at various events over the years advocating for HPS. So, I thought I'd pass along the following news. This article ran on Bloomberg.

Francis Collins, Who Led U.S. Race to Map Human Genome, Resigns

By Rob Waters

May 29 (Bloomberg) -- Francis Collins, who led the U.S. government effort to create a detailed blueprint of the human genetic code, will step down Aug. 1 as head of the U.S. institute that carried out that work, the agency said.

Collins, 58, helped identify genes linked to cystic fibrosis in 1989 and to Huntington's disease in 1993, the same year he was named head of the
National Human Genome Research Institute. By 2000, he was appearing at a White House press conference with President Bill Clinton and British Prime Minister Tony Blair to announce the completion of the genome's first draft identifying about 3 billion letters of genetic code.

The genome project provided access to the full catalogue of human genes, ushering in an era of research that previously hadn't been possible. For the first time, scientists could hunt for gene variations linked to common inherited diseases, leading to new medicines such as Tarceva, the Genentech Inc. lung cancer drug and Millennium Pharmaceuticals, Inc.'s Velcade.

``He's guided one of the most exciting projects in the history of biology,'' said Lee Hood, director of the Institute for Systems Biology in Seattle, in a telephone interview yesterday. Hood developed a process used to automatically sequence genes.

Hood said that after mapping the genome and spearheading a subsequent effort to analyze the genetic basis for many cancers, Collins is asking, ``Gee, what can I conquer now?'''

Proudest Accomplishment
Collins, in a telephone interview yesterday after his resignation was announced, said he was proudest of the fact that mapping the genome has led to tangible genetic and medical discoveries.

``The study of the human genome has completely transformed medical research, and is on the way to transforming clinical practice,'' Collins said.

Alan Guttmacher, the institute's current deputy director, will become acting director on Aug. 1, said NIH director Elias Zerhouni in am e-mailed statement announcing Collins' decision to leave the agency.
Collins said Guttmacher is ``perfectly suited'' to fill the position during a ``full-bore national search'' for a new director, which is expected to take a year.


Bert Vogelstein, professor of oncology and pathology at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine in Baltimore, said there is ``no heir apparent, no one who can easily swoop into the void'' left by Collins' departure.

``Francis has both the scientific credentials and an amazing ability to bring people together,'' Vogelstein said. ``He could really explain what was important in understandable terms.''

The Genome Race
In the late 1990s and early 2000s, Collins' institute raced against a private company, Celera Genetics, led by
Craig Venter, to be the first to publish the genome. The two engaged in a tense competition, until they were persuaded to call a truce, get equal credit and stand next to Clinton and Blair at the White House press conference. Three years later, in April 2003, Collins' group published its full analysis.
Collins, who grew up on a small farm in Virginia and was home-schooled until the sixth grade, got an undergraduate degree in chemistry from the University of Virginia, a doctorate in physical chemistry for Yale University and medical degree from the University of North Carolina. He served on the faculty at the University of Michigan until joining the NIH in 1993.


While at Michigan, he collaborated with researchers at the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto, Canada, on the gene for
cystic fibrosis and Huntington's.

`Insights'
Collins' work at the institute made him ``an extraordinary leader in developing tools and applications and insights into what makes us who we are,'' said W.
Ian Lipkin, a professor of epidemiology at Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health in New York, in a telephone interview.

Lipkin was the first to identify the West Nile Virus in the U.S. using genetic technology, and recently isolated one of the causes of a malady killing honeybees using gene sequencing technology created by Roche Holding AG.

``What's not as well-known is that he set the stage for a whole series of projects which followed on the heels of the human genome sequence, and now are probably some of the most valuable studies ongoing in biomedical research,'' Vogelstein said. ``The whole idea of having several labs undertake these projects is a different way of doing biomedical science, and you can largely attribute that to Francis as the leader.''

Collins said he planned to take a break from the 90-hour weeks and pressure of his post and become ``unemployed'' before beginning a new phase.

Next Steps
``I feel like I have another career or two left in me. I'm 58 years old and I'm looking forward to taking on another challenge,'' he said.
He said he plans to write a book about personalized medicine, the idea of tailoring medical treatments to the individual genetic attributes of each person.

There is a ``revolution that is occurring all around us to go from the one-size-fits-all approach to a truly individual strategy for the prevention and treatment of disease,'' Collins said. He said he's in a good position to explain that revolution and help separate the reality from the hype.

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