The School of Medicine stands to lose a gifted administrator and scientist, as President Bush announced last week his intention to nominate Elias Zerhouni, the school’s executive vice dean since 1997, to head the National Institutes of Health. Bush made the announcement, which was anticipated, in an East Room ceremony at which he also introduced his choice for surgeon general, Richard Carmona, a professor of surgery at the University of Arizona. Both nominees are subject to Senate confirmation.
As head of one of the world’s foremost biomedical research centers, Zerhouni would lead an organization with 27 institutes and centers and a proposed 2003 budget of $27 billion. He would fill a post that has been vacant for two years.
Bush said that in light of the war on terrorism and recent medical advances--in particular, the completion of the Human Genome Project--the work of NIH has “never been more promising, and never been more important.”
“Dr. Zerhouni is well-prepared to manage this rapidly growing institution during times of great new opportunity and urgent biodefense needs,” Bush said.
Begun as a one-room Laboratory of Hygiene in 1887, the NIH today is comprised of 75 buildings on more than 300 acres in Bethesda, Md., and it oversees 45,000 research grants.
In the introduction of his nominee, Bush told those gathered how Zerhouni and his wife, Nadia, immigrated to America from Algeria with $300 in their pockets and a dream of opportunity.
Born in Nedroma, a small mountain town on French Algeria’s western border, Zerhouni, 51, studied math and physics as an undergraduate before earning a medical degree from the University of Algiers. He came to Johns Hopkins in 1975 for a residency in diagnostic radiology.
In his statement at the nomination event, Zerhouni told the president that, since coming to America, he and his wife have raised a family of proud citizens, made many friends, worked hard and have been amply rewarded.
“But I could not have dreamed of ever being offered the privilege to serve America in this capacity. It is my distinct honor to be considered for the directorship of the National Institutes of Health, the agency that is the driving force behind our Nation’s preeminence in the biomedical sciences,” Zerhouni said. “If confirmed by the Senate, I will do my very best to advance the noble mission of the NIH and help improve health care for all Americans.”
Zerhouni’s first Hopkins appointment came in 1979, when he was named an assistant professor of radiology. From 1981 to 1985, he taught radiology at Eastern Virginia Medical School, before returning to Johns Hopkins to become an associate professor.
Since then, the multilingual scientist has risen rapidly through the ranks to principal leadership posts at the School of Medicine, where, in addition to being executive vice dean, he chairs the Department of Radiology and serves as a professor of biomedical engineering.
In his administrative capacity, Zerhouni has led efforts at Hopkins to restructure the School of Medicine’s Clinical Practice Association, developed a comprehensive strategic plan for research, helped reorganize the school’s academic leadership and worked with elected officials to plan a major biotechnology research park and urban revitalization project near the Hopkins medical campus. Zerhouni also championed the creation of the new Institute for Cell Engineering, a center dedicated to unlocking the mysteries of how cells reinvent themselves. The institute is the first of its kind in academic medicine.
According to colleagues, Zerhouni combines a talent and passion for math, physics, biomedical research and clinical innovation. He is credited with developing imaging methods extensively used for diagnosing cancer and cardiovascular disease, and is also a successful entrepreneur. He established a company specializing in the delivery of outpatient, high-tech imaging services that subsequently was acquired by a major corporation, while another company he helped establish, Surgi-Vision, has licensed novel, image-guided clinical technology from his laboratories.
President William R. Brody, who preceded Zerhouni as chair of Radiology, called Bush’s choice an “outstanding appointment.”
“Dr. Zerhouni’s mix of clinical, scientific and administrative abilities is particularly important during this period of significant growth in the NIH budget and rapid advances in biomedical science,” Brody said. “I expect that a lot will be accomplished at NIH on his watch. Losing Dr. Zerhouni to the NIH is a great win for the United States, but we will very much miss his leadership here at Hopkins.”
Edward Miller, dean and CEO of Johns Hopkins Medicine, said Zerhouni is a visionary leader who understands how science can improve health.
“As one of the world’s premier experts in magnetic resonance imaging, Elias has extended the role of MRI from taking snapshots of gross anatomy to visualizing how the body works at the molecular level. In doing so, he has helped provide a new tool for scientists to understand the origins of disease and how treatments can be tailored to be more effective,” Miller said. “On a personal note, Elias has been my closest friend and adviser since I became dean and CEO of Hopkins Medicine five years ago. He is sensitive to the needs of others and has the highest of ethical standards. The nation’s great gain will be Johns Hopkins’ great loss.”
Solomon Snyder, University Distinguished Service Professor of Neuroscience, Pharmacology and Psychiatry, said that as vice dean, Zerhouni has “displayed a remarkable gift for understanding complex basic science outside his field and appreciating all the ramifications of new findings.” Snyder added that Zerhouni is a natural born leader.
“His people skills, coupled with his capacity to cut through a morass of bureaucratic confusion, have enabled him to launch creative new ventures and resolve numerous administrative problems,” Snyder said. “He handles all of this with a gentle, seemingly effortless grace.”
Senate confirmation hearings are not likely to begin for several months, though they could start earlier.
With regard to a replacement for Zerhouni, Miller said he was not ready to comment at the present time.