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Stephen Straus Steps Down as NCCAM's First Director

Stephen E. Straus, MD, the first director of the National Institutes of Health’s (NIH) National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM), relinquished leadership of the Center on November 7, 2006, for health reasons. Dr. Straus will now serve as senior advisor to NIH Director Elias A. Zerhouni, MD. Ruth L. Kirschstein, MD, formerly the acting director of NIH, has been appointed acting director of NCCAM.1

“Steve Straus has done a tremendous job in creating and leading NCCAM,” said Dr. Zerhouni in an NIH press release.1 “His total dedication, superb intelligence, extraordinary vision, high energy, and singular wit are all qualities that make him an extraordinary leader. Steve has been one of my most trusted advisors, and I will continue to rely on his experience and perspective.”

“Dr. Straus brought a powerful measure of rational science into the thinking about how to study CAM interventions,” said Paul Coates, PhD, director of the Office of Dietary Supplements (ODS) at NIH (e-mail, December 20, 2006). “For him, there was a single standard—the scientific one.”

Dr. Coates and Dr. Straus attended monthly meetings with one another throughout the majority of Dr. Straus’ tenure at NCCAM. “My working relationship with Dr. Straus was especially rewarding. More than half of the portfolio of NCCAM deals with biologic therapies, most of which are marketed in the US as dietary supplements. So we had much to discuss,” Dr. Coates explained.

According to Dr. Coates, Dr. Straus recognized the importance of collaboration, and he worked closely with other NIH institutions, in addition to approaching both CAM researchers and conventional Western medicine researchers for CAM development. “He challenged CAM investigators and conventional investigators to bring their best ideas forward,” said Dr. Coates. “Some major initiatives from NCCAM brought both CAM and conventional scientists together.” For instance, many centers were initiated to promote collaborations between CAM and conventional researchers, particularly the Developmental Centers for Research on CAM.

Norman R. Farnsworth, PhD, research professor of pharmacognosy and distinguished university professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC), noted that the UIC/NIH Center for Botanical Dietary Supplements Research on Women’s Health received significant funding through NCCAM in 1999 to investigate botanicals that affect women’s health. According to Dr. Farnsworth, Dr. Straus’ work at NCCAM helped to place all elements of CAM on a scientific basis, by validating many CAM modalities through scientific research and raising further questions about modalities that did not show efficacy. “Dr. Straus is a world-class clinical virologist. Many thought he was committing professional suicide by taking over the directorship of NCCAM,” said Dr. Farnsworth (e-mail, December 20, 2006). “He has stated that NCCAM’s role was to scientifically validate the elements of complementary and alternative medicine. I admire the man.”

According to the NIH press release, research at NIH into CAM grew threefold during Straus’ term of leadership, from 1999-2006.1 NCCAM supported more than 1500 projects in research, training, and career development at over 260 US institutions during Straus’ directorship.2

Dr. Coates said that ODS is continuing to collaborate with NCCAM and that he has already begun attending regular meetings with the new acting director of NCCAM, Dr. Kirschstein.

“We want to do the best we can in serving the research needs in this field, and we don’t want there to be any loss in momentum,” Dr. Coates said (oral communication, December 20, 2006).

Dr. Coates expressed great confidence in Dr. Kirschstein, who has had a long and gloried career at NIH. She was the first woman director of an NIH institute—the National Institute of General Medical Sciences—from 1974 to 1993, and she served as acting director of NIH from January to May 2002.3


  1. Stephen E. Straus, MD, becomes senior advisor to NIH director [press release]. Bethesda, MD: National Institutes of Health; November 7, 2006. NIH News Web site. Available at: nov2006/nccam-07.htm. Accessed December 4, 2006.

  2. Dr. Straus steps down as NCCAM director. CAM at the NIH. Vol. XIII, No. 3. Fall 2006. Available at: Accessed December 21, 2006.

  3. Ruth L. Kirschstein, MD, acting director, NCCAM. CAM at the NIH. Vol. XIII, No. 3. Fall 2006. Available at: newsletter/2006_fall/actingdirector.htm. Accessed December 21, 2006.