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Originally published Thursday, July 9, 2009 at 12:00 AM

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Geneticist picked to head NIH

President Obama on Wednesday nominated Dr. Francis Collins, a pioneering geneticist who led the government's successful effort to sequence...

The New York Times

President Obama on Wednesday nominated Dr. Francis Collins, a pioneering geneticist who led the government's successful effort to sequence the human genome, as head of the National Institutes of Health.

Collins' selection, which had been rumored for weeks, was praised by top scientists and research advocacy organizations for whom the health institute is a crucial patron. The NIH is the most important source of research financing in the world; over the next 14 months it will dole out about $37 billion in research grants and $4 billion in spending on research programs at its Maryland campus.

Collins wrote "The Language of God," and he has given many talks and interviews in which he described his conversion to Christianity as a 27-year-old medical student. Religion and genetic research have long had a fraught relationship, and some in the field complain about what they see as Collins' evangelism.

Collins was widely praised in 2003 because of his leadership of the Human Genome Project, when the effort succeeded, but the hopes that this discovery would yield an array of promising medical interventions have greatly dimmed, discouraging many. Collins cannot be blamed for the unexpected scientific hurdles facing genetic research, but he played an important role in raising expectations impossibly high.

Some scientists and disease-research advocates criticized the extraordinary amount of money and attention the sequencing effort garnered, saying it distracted from more fruitful areas of research.

Collins' confirmation by the Senate is all but certain. He has long cultivated good relations on Capitol Hill. And since the administration finalized rules for broader use of stem cells in federal research before nominating him, anti-abortion forces will have a harder time using that issue to stop his confirmation. Collins would succeed Raynard Kington at NIH, who has been acting director since last fall.

Collins earned a doctorate in physical chemistry from Yale University and got a medical degree from the University of North Carolina. He likes to sing and play a guitar decorated with a double helix, the shape of genetic code.

He was part of a team at the University of Michigan that in 1989 discovered the gene for cystic fibrosis. At the time, many predicted that the discovery would lead to a quick cure. But like so much in genetic research, that goal is still a long way off.

As the leader of the Human Genome Project, Collins engaged in a fierce public battle with Dr. J. Craig Venter of Celera to finish the sequence first and make it broadly available. The success of Collins' project torpedoed much of Celera's business model. But in a speech in June, Collins said that the NIH needed to partner more with the pharmaceutical industry to create new drugs.

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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