New Chief for Child Health Institute

Maggie Bartlett/NHGRI

The nation's lead research institute devoted to child development and reproductive health has a new director. Alan Guttmacher, 60, who had been acting director of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, was named NICHD director yesterday by National Institutes of Health (NIH) Director Francis Collins.

Guttmacher, a geneticist and pediatrician, had been Collins's deputy director when Collins headed the National Human Genome Research Institute; he became acting director of NHGRI after Collins stepped down in August 2008. Last December as the new NIH director, Collins asked Guttmacher to temporarily helm the $1.3 billion NICHD, after 23-year director Duane Alexander departed in the wake of cost overruns for the National Children's Study, a planned, long-term study of 100,000 children requested by Congress.

Vanderbilt University pediatrician Jonathan Gitlin, a member of the NICHD advisory council who has known Guttmacher for many years, praises his leadership skills and "incredible enthusiasm and energy." Guttmacher has already begun fashioning a strategic plan for the institute. A longtime NICHD staffer says "people are pretty comfortable" with him.

Guttmacher's uncle was a president of Planned Parenthood in the 1960s and helped found the Guttmacher Institute, a think tank with offices in New York City and Washington, D.C., that studies sexual and reproductive health. He talked about his family, (yes, he was named after his famous uncle), and his own battles with disease in a New York Times interview earlier this year:

Q. You've had your own personal experiences with genetic diseases, haven't you?

A. Yes . A decade ago I suffered a near fatal heart attack and then five years later I was diagnosed with leukemia. My only risk factor for either was family history. It's ironic. In a family of physicians, I'm the only medical geneticist. And I'm the one who's inherited the diseases.

Both illnesses have given me a sense of the importance of the work we do at the N.I.H. I have, for instance, the feeling that kids growing up today with my family's genetic history won't get leukemia when they reach my age. Because of breakthroughs in genetics and personalized medicine, there will be ways to prevent it from ever getting this far.