President Barack Obama is choosing an influential scientist who helped unravel the human genetic code – and is known for finding common ground between belief in God and science – to head the
Obama called Dr. Francis Collins "one of the top scientists in the world" in Wednesday.
"His groundbreaking work has changed the very ways we consider our health and examine disease," Obama said.
Collins has strong North Carolina connections. He earned his M.D. with honors from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and his daughter was an M.D. resident at UNC-CH. He earned the M.D. from 1978 to 1981 and later was chief resident of internal medicine at UNC Hospitals.
The NIH is the nation’s premiere medical research agency, directing $29.5 billion to spur innovative science that leads to better health. Collins, an early gene-hunter, would come to the job not just with the scientific credentials, but with a reputation for translating the complexities of DNA into language the everyday American can understand.
The folksy Collins led the Human Genome Project that, along with a competing private company, mapped the genetic code – or, as he famously called it, "the book of human life."
"It is humbling for me, and awe-inspiring, to realize that we have caught the first glimpse of our own instruction book, previously known only to God," he said at a 2000 White House ceremony marking release of the genome’s first draft.
For that work, he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian award. But he may be more widely known for his 2007 best-selling book, "The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief."
And this spring Collins, 59, was named one of GQ Magazine’s "Rock Stars of Science," posing in cool shades as part of a publicity campaign to bring celebrity to science.
John Porter, a former Republican congressman from Illinois who chairs the health advocacy group Research!America called Collins "a perfect choice."
"He knows the science and he is an outstanding leader," Porter said.
Collins promises to make the NIH’s important work more understandable not only for patients but for lawmakers who hold the agency’s purse strings, said American Heart Association President Dr. Clyde Yancey.
"The real advantage he brings is the ability to translate deep and complex science to the lay population … in a meaningful way that allows it to be tangible and actionable," he said.
Collins has discovered numerous genes important for diseases, including the one that leads to cystic fibrosis.
But the true power of genetics, he told a meeting of scientists in Washington last month, has yet to be realized as researchers eventually learn enough to provide customized predictions of which diseases really threaten an individual, and personalized care to respond.
Today, "you can get fancy DNA tests for hundreds of dollars," Collins told The Endocrine Society meeting – but your better bet for might be a simple family tree of health, checking what ailments mom, dad and grandpa had to predict your own future. "That’s a free genetic test of great power."
NIH is familiar turf: Collins spent 15 years as the NIH’s chief of genome research, before stepping down last year to, among other things, work with Obama’s campaign. He also helped found the BioLogos Foundation, a Web site formed by a group of scientists who say they want to bridge gaps between science and religion.