Francis S. Collins, who heads medical genetics research at theUniversity of Michigan's Medical Center, last week accepted "inprinciple" an offer by the director of the National Institutes ofHealth, Bernadine Healy, to become director of the NIH's Centerfor Genome Research. This post was vacated last April byNobelist James Watson of double-helix fame.

Collins' fame rests largely on his discovery of the cystic fibrosisgene three-and-a-half years ago, and his involvement inisolating the genes for Huntington disease andneurofibromatosis. At Michigan, he and his medical geneticistsare currently closing in on an elusive gene implicated infamilial breast and ovarian cancer.

Collins and Healy negotiated for several months over concernshe had expressed about stepping into the Genome Project job.Most of these, Collins told BioWorld on Friday, "were eventuallyaddressed, although the fact that it's an agreement in principle,and not in fact, reflects the fact that not quite all of myconcerns have been searched through."

But Collins confided, "I eventually got to the point of decidingthat it is so appealing to have a chance to stand at the helm of aproject that I view as the most exciting science of our era, thatI just couldn't imagine walking away from it."

Highest on the list of his hesitancies: "I need a clear sense thatthe new administration is enthusiastic about this endeavor aswell." Collins, who is 42, revealed that he had discussed thisproblem with people in the Clinton transition team, and cameaway "fairly comforted by what I interpret as being a strongvote of support for the genome project, a desire to see itflourish."

He thinks, however, that "it would probably be a mistake tohave a formal appointment made before inauguration day," andthat, given the paperwork, he does not anticipate officiallysigning on much before March.

Healy herself serves at the pleasure of the president, and herboss, Secretary of Health and Human Services Louis Sullivanwill be replaced by a Clinton appointee, Donna Shalala.

One concern settled to Collins' satisfaction was his desire tokeep a strong hand in medical genetics research; he has beenpromised a lab on the NIH campus.

Elke Jordan, deputy director of the NIH Center for GenomeResearch, told BioWorld that within the Center's mission "tomap and ultimately sequence the human genome," there isroom for "many interpretations and variations, and relativeemphasis on different aspects."

Collins concurs. "This is exactly the right moment to revisit thequestion of what the goals of the project need to be, and to seewhat things could perhaps be modified a bit."

He would personally like to see "as part of my oversight, alarger emphasis placed in the project on identification of geneswithin the genome."

Besides purely scientific pie in the sky, he sees clinical meatand potatoes in the here and now. "I'm a firm believer," Collinssaid, "in the notion that uncovering the 100,000 or so genesthat define a human being carries within it a great deal ofpotential applicability to new drug development."

An even more immediate payoff is gene therapy. "If you wantto do therapy for a disease," Collins said, "the first thing youhave to do is find the gene." He cited the impending maidenattempt to treat cystic fibrosis by delivering a gene to apatient's airways (see BioWorld for Dec. 4). Collins perceivesthe genome project as "the major catalyst of gene therapyscenarios, such as this one, moving forward at maximumpossible speed."

He concluded: "I can't resist repeating, and overstating, that thegenome project really does hold much of the promise of thefuture of biotechnology and the pharmaceutical industry -- ifwe play it right!"

-- David N. Leff Science Editor

(c) 1997 American Health Consultants. All rights reserved.