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Vermont Clinician Takes Deputy Reins at NHGRI

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Alan Guttmacher misses Vermont. He misses teaching students, and to some extent he misses the academic environment. But Guttmacher, who this summer took over as deputy director of NHGRI, says the opportunity he found at the institute outweighs any of those things.

Formerly an associate professor of pediatrics and medicine at the University of Vermont, where he spent 12 years, Guttmacher arrived at NHGRI in June of 1999 to be senior clinical advisor to the director. “Nothing else would’ve gotten me out of there,” he says, remembering that from his childhood in Baltimore “I always wanted to live in the rurals of northern New England.” But NHGRI offered something Guttmacher didn’t have, even running the only pediatric ICU in the snowy state: “the ability to really make a difference in … some of the key scientific and health-related issues of our era.”

In July, Guttmacher stepped up to the deputy director’s chair, and is also director of the office of policy planning and communication. Anyone in the field knows it would be tough to the fill the shoes of the previous deputy director, Elke Jordan, which is why Guttmacher insists, “I’m not trying to fill her shoes.”

Indeed, he sees his appointment as a statement that NHGRI is entering a new phase. “The transition from Elke to me partly signifies the fact that NHGRI — looking at the next five or 10 years — will still be sequencing other organisms [but] with the end of the sequencing of the human genome, we’re looking more at the kind of translational research for moving genomics to health and healthcare.” With that perspective, it makes sense to Guttmacher to have a former clinician in the post.

At 53, he has a personal connection to getting genomics to the doctor’s office as fast as possible. An avid runner with low cholesterol, he suffered “a heart attack and a couple of cardiac arrests” a few years back. “My only risk factor was family history,” says Guttmacher, acutely aware of the importance of genomic studies to the advancement of healthcare.

“We’ll still clearly focus on those kinds of basic science things that need to be done in genomics,” he says. “But now that genomics is maturing, it makes it possible to say, ‘Hey, we have something that we can bring to the bedside.’”

— Meredith Salisbury

 

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