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Elias Zerhouni, MD, the director of the National Institutes of Health, said Wednesday that he plans to step down at the end of October to "pursue writing projects and explore other professional opportunities."

Zerhouni, a physician-scientist and leader in radiology research, has served as NIH director since May 2002. One of the hallmarks of his tenure is the NIH Roadmap for Medical Research, launched in 2003. The NIH Roadmap brought together all of the NIH's 27 institutes and centers to fund compelling research initiatives that could have a major impact on science, but that no single institute could tackle alone.

Zerhouni also launched new programs to encourage high-risk innovative research, such as the Director's Pioneer Awards and New Innovator Awards, and focused especially on the need to support new investigators and foster their independence.

During his tenure, Zerhouni worked to lower barriers between disciplines of science and encourage trans-NIH collaborations. For example, he inspired significant interdisciplinary efforts such as the NIH Strategic Plan for Obesity Research and the Neuroscience Blueprint.

Zerhouni also led a major reform of the translational and clinical research system in the U.S. He also worked to improve public access to scientific information. These efforts, along with his continual advocacy for the public's investment in the NIH, greatly contributed to Congress passing the NIH Reform Act of 2006, which was seen as a sign of renewed confidence in the NIH.

"I have had the privilege of leading one of the greatest institutions in the world for six and a half years," Zerhouni said. "NIH's strength comes from the extraordinary commitment and excellence of its people in serving a noble mission. It also comes from the nation's scientific community, whose discoveries alleviate the suffering of patients throughout the world. Over the past six years, we experienced a revolution in the biomedical sciences and I feel fortunate to have been part of it."

Secretary of Health and Human Services Michael Leavitt said, "Elias has been a powerful voice for the medical research community as head of the NIH. His tenure has been marked by the spirit of collaboration, good management and transformation. The Roadmap for Medical Research that he developed and implemented will benefit the health of this nation for many years to come."

He added, "His many achievements include promotion of genetic research, support for advances of biodefense research and helping raise awareness of women's heart disease."

Zerhouni's tenure is perhaps best known for his advocacy of expanded funding for NIH and his willingness to buck the Bush administration's Aug. 9, 2001, policy limiting federal funding for embryonic stem cell research to cell lines in effect the day the policy was announced.

Perhaps most problematic for Zerhouni on Capitol Hill was the issue of outside industry income received by some of its scientists. He responded with a controversial conflict-of-interest policy that with later adjustments appeared to quell much of the criticism of NIH.

Perhaps most telling of Zerhouni's time in the NIH's top post was the bipartisan praise he received on Capitol Hill.

"Dr. Zerhouni will be remembered as one of the best directors NIH ever had," said Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), chairman of the Senate Appropriations subcommittee that oversees NIH funding. "He is a superb manager who brought an unprecedented spirit of collaboration and vision to NIH at a time when budgets for the agency were extremely tight. I will also remember the courage he displayed in advocating more federal support for human embryonic stem cell research, even though it meant publicly disagreeing with the president who appointed him."

Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas), the top Republican on the House Energy and Commerce Committee and sponsor of successful legislation reauthorizing the agency when he served as the panel's chairman, called Zerhouni "an absolute jewel of a public servant. He has fulfilled the highest goals of the NIH with integrity and honor. He will be missed."

Rep. Diana DeGette (D-Colorado), vice chairwoman of Energy and Commerce, said Zerhouni "led the charge in restructuring the NIH and coordinating interdisciplinary research across the NIH's many institutes."

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