Harvard MD and senior HHMI science officer named new NCCAM director

This just in from NIH tonight - the new director is a serious, well-credentialed physician-scientist and administrator. What will this mean for NCCAM and the funding process for alternative medicine-related projects? Discuss amongst yourselves:

National Institutes of Health (NIH) Director, Elias A. Zerhouni, M.D., has named Josephine P. Briggs, M.D., to be the director of the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM). An accomplished researcher and physician, Dr. Briggs brings a focus on translational research to the study of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) to help build a fuller understanding of the usefulness and safety of CAM practices that nearly two-thirds of the American public uses.

"We are pleased to have Dr. Briggs return to NIH to lead NCCAM," said Dr. Zerhouni. "She has been a leader in trans-NIH activities and her in-depth understanding of NIH and translational research will bring new opportunities to the study of CAM."

"I am honored to be selected to lead NCCAM and welcome the opportunity to develop further the NIH investment in this exciting field of biomedical investigation," Dr. Briggs said. "Alternative approaches to health and wellness are of enormous public interest, and we need a strong portfolio of science in this area. The NIH has already taken significant steps to build research programs to explore the potential of CAM. I look forward to working with scientists and the CAM community as well as my colleagues across the NIH to strengthen our understanding of the potential of CAM and to examine the opportunities for integration of proven CAM approaches into our Nation's health care delivery."

NCCAM has an annual budget of $121 million and supports CAM research at more than 260 institutions throughout the country, funds research training and career development, and provides science-based information to the public and health professionals.

On November 7, 2006, Dr. Zerhouni announced that Stephen E. Straus, M.D., NCCAM's first Director, who stepped down from his leadership of the Center for health reasons, would become a special advisor to him. At the time of Dr. Straus' death in May of 2007, Dr. Zerhouni recognized Dr. Straus' contribution to NCCAM as having articulated "an uncompromising and compelling agenda" for the new Center. In the interim, Dr. Zerhouni named Ruth L. Kirschstein, M.D., formerly the Acting Director of NIH, to be the Acting Director of NCCAM. Dr. Kirschstein has also served as the director of the National Institute of General Medical Sciences and was the first woman to be named an institute director at NIH in 1974. "We are grateful to Dr. Kirschstein, for having provided experienced leadership during this transition," noted Dr. Zerhouni today.

Dr. Briggs received her A.B. cum laude in biology from Harvard-Radcliffe College and her M.D. from Harvard Medical School. She completed her residency training in internal medicine and nephrology at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine, followed by a research fellowship in physiology at Yale School of Medicine. She was a professor of internal medicine and physiology at the University of Michigan from 1993 to 1997. From 1997 to 2006 she was director of the Division of Kidney, Urologic, and Hematologic Diseases in the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. For the last year and a half she has been senior scientific officer at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.

Dr. Briggs has published more than 125 research articles and is on the editorial boards of numerous journals. She is an elected member of the American Association of Physicians and a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. She is also a recipient of the Volhard Prize of the German Nephrological Society. Her research interests include the renin-angiotensin system, diabetic nephropathy and the effect of antioxidants in kidney disease.

The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine's mission is to explore complementary and alternative medical practices in the context of rigorous science, train CAM researchers, and disseminate authoritative information to the public and professionals. For additional information, call NCCAM's Clearinghouse toll free at 1-888-644-6226, or visit the NCCAM Web site at www.nccam.nih.gov.

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Maybe she'll shut the place down and give the funding to research that might actually help people!

That'll never happen. Once a government agency is created, it's almost impossible to eliminate. Moreover, there's going to be a new administration in less than a year. It's very likely that a new Director of the NIH will be appointed, and whoever is appointed will want to appoint his or her own directors of the various Institutes, Centers, and Offices that make up the NIH.

Personally, I don't think anyone can fix NCCAM anymore. The time when that was possible is past. Woo has become too entrenched in the culture of the place, and any real "fix" of the place would involve such disruption that it would have to have the strong support of the Director of the NIH to implement. You can bet that the Congressional woo-lovers who got NCCAM created in the first place and jealously protect it would howl with rage and make sure that whoever tried to do what really needs to be done to make NCCAM a legitimate force for science- and evidence-based medicine would not last long.

If Kirschstein couldn't do anything.....

I'm not really up on the whole NCCAM. Dropped interest after figuring out from the funded grant pool that they weren't really all that interested in the drugs-from-plants stuff.

However, what's to say it can't be reformed by a strong Director backed by the Great Zerhouni or his successor? Directors have tremendous power in selecting grants for pickups. ten percent here, ten percent there and all of a sudden they "look" like they are funding real grants. this brings back the scientists who want to work on the legitimate stuff that could theoretically be called "alternative". more applications gives the new Director more to work with, now say 20 percent are better.

I suggest searching www.quackwatch.com for relevant material. The purse strings for NIH are held by Congress and, in the past, funding for NIH has been held hostage until NCCAM became more quack-friendly. An early director (of the, then, Office of Alternative Medicine) was forced to resign for being too pro-science).

Predictions are hard, especially about the future; but I predict the new NCCAM head will be outed as a woo-supporter or will have a short, unhappy tenure there.