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Genome project leader is selected to head NIH

Dr. Francis Collins is named to run the vast research agency. He guided the U.S. drive to map the human genetic code and wrote a book linking God and science.

July 09, 2009|Thomas H. Maugh II

Dr. Francis S. Collins, the geneticist who discovered the causes of half a dozen diseases, oversaw the government's efforts to map the human genome and wrote a now-famous book presenting scientific evidence for a belief in God, will be nominated to head the National Institutes of Health, the White House confirmed Wednesday.

"My administration is committed to promoting scientific integrity and pioneering scientific research, and I am confident that Dr. Francis Collins will lead the NIH to achieve these goals," President Obama said in a written statement.

"Dr. Collins is one of the top scientists in the world, and his groundbreaking work has changed the very ways we consider our health and examine disease," the statement said.

The appointment, widely hailed and expected to be readily confirmed, would make Collins one of the most powerful and influential scientists in the country, if not the world, overseeing 27 institutes and an annual budget of nearly $30 billion for biological and medical research.

Collins is "a brilliant researcher, able administrator and visionary leader with the experience to take on the challenges and opportunities that confront the NIH," Dr. Clyde Yancy, president of the American Heart Assn., said in a statement.

He is a leader in the personalization of medicine and a forceful advocate of transparency and collaboration in research, said Nancy G. Brinker, chairwoman of the Susan G. Komen for the Cure Advocacy Alliance.

Collins, 59, first came to fame in 1989 when he and his colleagues at the University of Michigan announced that they had discovered the defective gene that causes cystic fibrosis. He had developed a technique, called positional cloning, that allowed researchers to scan large segments of the human genome looking for disease-producing genes even when they did not know the function of the genes in question.

Using that technique, he and his group subsequently identified the genes for Huntington's disease, neurofibromatosis, multiple endocrine neoplasia type 1 (a tumor of the parathyroid and pituitary glands) and the M4 type of adult acute leukemia.

In 1993, he replaced James Watson as head of what was to become the National Human Genome Research Institute. There, he directed the effort to sequence the human genome, a collection of more than 3 billion bases of DNA that comprise the human blueprint. Collins described the effort as "an adventure that beats going to the moon or splitting the atom."

What started as a race between the government and entrepreneur J. Craig Venter eventually developed into a collaboration. In 2000, Collins and Venter unveiled the completed sequence.

"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," Collins said at the time.

Collins resigned as head of the institute last year but remains a consultant. He subsequently established the BioLogos Foundation to "contribute to the public voice that represents the harmony of science and faith."

A self-described agnostic early in his life, his experiences with the dying during his medical practices led him to examine a variety of religions and ultimately to develop a religious philosophy that he enunciated in his 2006 best-seller, "The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief." But he rejected creationism and intelligent design, arguing that "evolution from a common ancestor is clearly true. If there was any lingering doubt about the evidence from the fossil record, the study of DNA provides the strongest possible proof of our relatedness to all other living things."

He called his philosophy Theistic Evolution, or BioLogos, and argued that God created the physical parameters of the universe but then allowed it to develop on its own.

Collins was raised on a small farm in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia and home-schooled by his mother until the sixth grade. His initial interest was in the "pristine sciences of chemistry and physics, where everything made sense," but exposure to a graduate course in biochemistry at Yale University sparked his interest in "this messy thing called life."

He was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2007.

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thomas.maugh@latimes.com

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