NIH Nominee Breezes Through Hearing

So far, so good. Zerhouni is well on his way to becoming NIH director.

The radiologist nominated to head the National Institutes of Health (NIH) sailed through his congressional confirmation hearing today, deftly handling questions that only briefly touched on tough topics such as stem cell research. The nominee, Elias Zerhouni, also offered a few hints about his priorities for the $23.6 billion biomedical research giant.

Zerhouni, currently executive vice dean at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore, was warmly received by senators from both parties on the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee. Chair Edward Kennedy (D-MA), for example, described him as "extremely highly recommended, highly qualified."

Although he noted that "disease knows no politics," Zerhouni promised to faithfully carry out the Bush Administration's policy on the use of human embryonic stem cells (Science, 17 August 2001, p. 1242). Only a couple lawmakers pressed Zerhouni on whether he agrees with President George W. Bush's decision to limit federal research to 78 approved lines of stem cells. "You can do a lot" with those lines, he replied. However, he hinted that he might eventually make the case for more lines: "If it becomes evident through this research that there are pathways to develop cures and so on, I'm going to be the first one to assemble that information ... and share that with everyone."

As for his priorities, Zerhouni said the director's "most important role ... is to reestablish morale and momentum" as well as to recruit NIH institute directors. NIH has been run by acting director Ruth Kirschstein for more than 2 years, and six institutes do not have permanent directors. (The director of the new imaging institute is expected to be announced this week.) Zerhouni said he's interested in fostering "crosscutting initiatives" and promoting "access to new technologies," such as a DNA chip he brought along as a prop. He also tossed out the idea of creating a national library of molecules that researchers could use to probe gene pathways.

The committee is expected to vote on and approve Zerhouni's nomination as soon as tomorrow. Kennedy said the full Senate could act within a few days after that.

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