This medal recognizes a federal employee for significant accomplishments throughout a lifetime of achievement in public service.
Position: Deputy Director for Intramural Research
Agency: National Institutes of Health
Location: Bethesda, Maryland
Achievement: Throughout a four-decade career, led seminal studies in the treatment of drug-resistant cancer cells and played an instrumental role in improving the rigor of medical research.
Dr. Michael M. Gottesman has spent nearly four decades as a highly respected scientist at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), conducting important studies on how cancer cells resist destruction by several widely used chemotherapy drugs.
As chief of the laboratory of cell biology at the National Cancer Institute, Gottesman is the country’s premier researcher on the interaction of cancer and medications. He has developed molecular tools to define the drug-resistance genes found in individual cancers, information that is used to predict a patient's response to therapy.
Gottesman’s scientific breakthroughs have opened the door to designing medicines to be more effective in prolonging and saving lives, something now being tackled by pharmaceutical companies.
“His body of work identified the intricate processes by which cancer cells resist a variety of anti-cancer drugs, demonstrating a need for new approaches for the development of better drugs,” said Dr. Harold Varmus, the director of the National Cancer Institute.
Gottesman said it had been a mystery as to why cancer cells become simultaneously resistant to multiple anti-cancer drugs.
“We found that cancer cells were using a mechanism that nature had already devised to protect the body and were using it to protect themselves,” said Gottesman. “We opened a whole new area for pharmacologists around the handling of anti-cancer drugs.”
In addition to this significant research, Gottesman for the past 19 years has had a dual role as deputy director of the NIH Intramural Research Program, the world’s largest biomedical research operation. This multi-faceted program includes 1,200 principal investigators and more than 4,000 postdoctoral fellows who conduct basic, translational and clinical research at 23 NIH centers.
“Michael has a rare combination of scientific insight, administrative acumen, unselfishness, patience and boundless optimism that have allowed him to blend science and administration in a manner that has increased scientific and organizational innovativeness and accomplishment,” said Varmus.
In his administrative role, Gottesman said he is a like a senior dean at a university overseeing and coordinating all of NIH’s internal research, recruiting highly-skilled scientists and training the next generation of biomedical and behavioral investigators.
During Gottesman’s tenure, NIH research has been responsible for numerous scientific accomplishments, including the HPV vaccine, new treatment and insights into multiple sclerosis, more effective imaging for early detection of heart disease, basic research that will lead to development of a universal vaccine for influenza, and the creation of the Undiagnosed Diseases Program. During this period, Nobel Prizes have been awarded to seven scientists who trained or worked at NIH.
“By his leadership and thoughtful, gentle hand on the tiller, Michael has established high standards that all employees try to achieve in terms of scientific excellence and in dedicating their lives to finding answers to medical problems,” said Dr. Francis Collins, director of NIH. “The scientists look up to Michael because he defines the culture of the NIH.”
Gottesman also has developed and championed programs to encourage women and minorities to pursue science and come to NIH. Under his leadership, Asian scientists in tenure track positions increased from 10 to 30 percent, while the number of women in the clinical investigator tenure track rose from 28 to 38 percent.
With NIH’s emphasis on high-risk, high-reward research, Gottesman’s administrative role includes managing a rigorous scientific review of each research project every four years, which he said amounts to roughly one review a day.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said Gottesman’s job is to “make sure there is consistency of quality” in all of the research done at NIH. “He sets the standards,” said Fauci.
“It is an opportunity to make a real difference in the way fellow scientists are conducting research,” said Gottesman.
Varmus credits Gottesman with increasing the stringency of the scientific reviews, resulting in the reduction or closure of under-performing projects, and allowing the reallocation of increasingly scarce resources to high-priority projects.
“This process, although painful at times, increases scientific returns for taxpayer-derived funding and enables more aggressive approaches to scientific discovery and subsequent benefits for patients,” said Varmus.
Gottesman also has created special programs that annually train 6,000 individuals, ranging from high school and college students to post-baccalaureate and post-doctorate fellows. Many of his programs are recognized as a primary source for increasing the diversity of students entering biomedical research at NIH and throughout the country.
“I am most proud of maintaining an environment that is conducive to high-quality science that is sustained over many years,” said Gottesman. “NIH is a crown jewel in the government, and we want to make sure the jewels are shining brightly.”
The Samuel J. Heyman Service to America Medals are presented annually by the nonprofit, nonpartisan Partnership for Public Service to celebrate excellence in our federal civil service.