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Trump asks longtime NIH director to stay, but US patent chief exits

Francis Collins, who has led the National Institutes of Health since 2009, will remain as chief of the agency under the Trump administration, the White House said June 6.

But the head of the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office, Michelle Lee, resigned the same day.

Both Collins and Lee were holdovers from the Obama administration. President Donald Trump had decided to retain them in a temporary capacity after he took office Jan. 20.

Prior to leading the NIH — the world's largest biomedical research organization — Collins served as the director of the agency's National Human Genome Research Institute, where he headed the U.S. government's effort on the Human Genome Project, an international research endeavor to sequence and map all genes.

In a statement, Collins said he was "honored to continue as the director" of the NIH and considered it "a great privilege to serve at a time of unprecedented opportunity to advance health and relieve suffering through biomedical research."

"I am grateful for the president's vote of confidence in my ability to continue to lead this great agency," he added.

Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., chairman of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, who had urged Trump to keep Collins in the post, said it was "good news for the country" he was staying at the NIH.

"There's nobody better qualified than Francis Collins to help accelerate the medical miracles that have the potential to help virtually every American family," Alexander said.

Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich., the former chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, also welcomed the news about Collins.

"For nearly a decade, Dr. Collins has spearheaded the bold agenda at the National Institutes of Health, but he's spent his entire life as public servant on the cutting edge of medical research," Upton said.

Upton noted that Collins "worked hand-in-glove" with the lawmaker's legislative team on the 21st Century Cures Act, a law signed by President Barack Obama in December 2016 aimed at pumping up the U.S. biomedical enterprise.

Of the $6.3 billion authorized in the law, $4.8 billion was slated for NIH projects on the brain, precision medicine and cancer.

But Trump has called for a nearly $6 billion cut in the NIH's funds for fiscal year 2018 — a proposal many Republican and Democratic lawmakers plan to reject.

While Collins is popular, not all lawmakers were in favor of him staying on at the NIH.

In a May 22 letter, a group of Republican members of the House urged Trump to dump Collins, citing the NIH chief's views on embryonic stem cell research, which they said made him "less than an ideal fit for this life-affirming administration."

Lee departs

No reason was given for Lee's departure from the patent office and Trump has yet to nominate a permanent director of the patent agency.

Lee was the first woman to serve as the U.S. PTO's director, although Teresa Stanek Rea served as acting director while Obama was deciding on who to nominate after his first patent office chief, David Kappos, stepped down in February 2013 after holding the position since 2009.

Before taking the helm at the U.S. PTO, Lee was deputy general counsel at Google and the company's first head of patents and patent strategy. Prior to that, Lee was a partner at the Silicon Valley law firm of Fenwick & West LLP. She also worked as a computer scientist at the MIT Artificial Intelligence Laboratory and Hewlett-Packard Research Laboratories and was a law clerk at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit and the District Court for the Northern California.