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NIH Vaccine Chief Gary Nabel Trades Dream Job for Big Pharma

Gary Nabel

National Institutes of Health

Gary Nabel, one of the most prominent researchers at the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH), is moving to big pharma. Nabel, an immunologist and virologist who came to NIH in 1999 to head the newly formed Vaccine Research Center (VRC) at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), on 3 December will become chief scientific officer at Sanofi. Although the pharmaceutical multinational is headquartered in Paris, Nabel will work from its offices in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Nabel says it was a wrenching decision to leave VRC. "There's really nothing about the job that I don't like," he says. But in November 2009, his wife, Elizabeth, stepped down from her job as director of NIH's National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute to become president of Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston. "We've been commuting for 3 years and, quite honestly, if it hadn't been for that, I wouldn't have looked for a new job in the first place," he says. "The opportunity to be in the same town and wake up in the same place is obviously important to me."

Nabel built a team of researchers at VRC who have published high-profile studies and pushed forward vaccines for HIV, bird flu, SARS, and Ebola. "We'll miss him tremendously because he's such an extraordinary individual," says NIAID Director Anthony Fauci. Although VRC has yet to bring a vaccine to market, Fauci says that Nabel "created a process that will get us there."

The move will bring Nabel back to his academic roots. He did his undergraduate degree, Ph.D., and M.D. at Harvard University, including an internship at Brigham and Women's, where he met Elizabeth. (Their first date at a restaurant in Cambridge was interrupted by an armed robbery.) He completed a postdoc with Nobelist David Baltimore at the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research in Cambridge. The couple then moved to the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, where Nabel established himself as a leader in the budding gene therapy field. At VRC, he moved to the front of AIDS vaccine research.

Elias Zerhouni, the former NIH director who heads Sanofi's global R&D program, recruited Nabel to the company. Nabel says he shares Zerhouni's vision to put Sanofi "in the first tier of scientifically driven research organizations in pharma, along the lines of what Genentech did in the '90s." He hopes to do this by increasing collaborations with academics and government researchers. "I'll do whatever I can to build bridges to the external, NIH-funded world," says Nabel, who plans to maintain his own lab. "It's a different model than what they've done in the past."

VRC's John Mascola will serve as acting director while a search committee seeks a replacement for Nabel.