Stephen E. Straus, M.D., 60, the first director of the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), died of brain cancer May 14, 2007, at his home in Potomac, Maryland.
“As NCCAM’s first Director, Dr. Straus articulated an uncompromising and compelling agenda for scientific research and research training that engendered broad interest and collaboration,” noted Elias A. Zerhouni, M.D., Director of the National Institutes of Health. “His success stemmed from the fact that he understood that the commitment to help patients had to be constantly evolving in order to meet their needs. The NIH has lost a great leader and an outstanding scientist. Most of all, we have lost a dear friend.”
“As the founding Director of NCCAM from 1999 to 2006, Dr. Straus built a comprehensive research enterprise, championing the efforts to establish the efficacy and safety of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) practices while upholding the rigorous standards of science for which the NIH is known. Under his leadership, CAM research at NIH grew threefold, facilitating his vision of an evidence-based integrative approach to health care for the benefit of the public. As a friend and fellow virologist, I will sorely miss him. I am proud to have been chosen to be the Acting Director of NCCAM to uphold and further his vision for the Center,” said Ruth L. Kirschstein, M.D.
An internationally recognized scientist, Dr. Straus also held the position of Senior Investigator in the Laboratory of Clinical Investigation at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID). His bench-to-bedside research yielded original insights into the pathogenesis and management of several viral and immunological diseases.
“Dr. Straus was a superb physician-scientist who constantly sought new answers to improve the health of patients,” said Anthony S. Fauci, M.D., Director of NIAID, where Dr. Straus had a long and successful career, notably as Chief of the NIAID Laboratory of Clinical Investigation. “Steve also was one of the kindest and most compassionate clinicians I have known, and served as a mentor for many young investigators who have become extraordinary physician-scientists in their own right.”
Under Dr. Straus’ leadership, CAM science began to evolve beyond the advocacy and skepticism and polarization it once engendered to earned legitimacy as a research area to help improve public health in an area that encompasses a wide range of CAM practices including mind-body medicine, biologically based and manipulative practices, and energy medicine.
“The Center has done much to assure CAM critics and cheerleaders alike that our interests are their interests—and the public’s interests—to establish the evidence that a CAM practice works for the purposes that it was designed for and is safe to use, and if not, why not,” wrote Dr. Straus in the foreword of NCCAM’s strategic plan for 2005-2009.
A native of New York, Dr. Straus had extensive basic and clinical research experience related to many conditions including chronic fatigue syndrome, Lyme disease, HIV/AIDS, chronic hepatitis B virus, and genital herpes infections and chronic post-herpetic pain. Under his leadership, scientists demonstrated that acyclovir suppresses recurrent genital and oral herpes. Recently, he was part of the nationwide research team that showed that a vaccine was effective in preventing shingles (herpes zoster virus) in older adults.
His studies of patients who failed to recover from infectious mononucleosis led Dr. Straus to characterize rare, fatal chronic Epstein-Barr virus infections. These studies also led to his recognition of the autoimmune lymphoproliferative syndrome (ALPS), the first disorder of lymphocyte apoptosis. His investigations of over 200 such patients form the basis of most of what is known today of this disorder’s clinical and biological features, including its pronounced risk of lymphoma.
Dr. Straus’ academic training began at Massachusetts Institute of Technology where he earned his Bachelor of Science degree in life sciences in 1968. In 1972, he received his medical degree from the Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons. Four years later, he became a fellow of Infectious Diseases at Washington University in St. Louis.
His career at the National Institutes of Health began in 1979, when he joined NIAID and where he continued his research while also heading NCCAM. Dr. Straus was board certified in internal medicine and infectious diseases.
Dr. Straus’ achievements were recognized by election to many prestigious professional societies, including the Association of American Physicians and the American Society for Clinical Investigation, and by appointment to the editorial boards of several scholarly journals. He was the recipient of five medals and other commendations from the U.S. Public Health Service, including the Distinguished Service Medal for innovative clinical research, and the HHS Secretary’s Distinguished Service Award. In 2007 he received the gold medal in academic medicine from his alma mater, the Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons. He was a member of the Clinical Research Roundtable of the National Academies’ Institute of Medicine and served on the National Institutes of Health Steering Committee.
Dr. Straus published more than 400 original research articles and edited several books.
Survivors include his wife Barbara Straus; daughters Kate Straus and Julie Straus; son, Benjamin Straus; mother Dora Straus; sister, Miriam Wallach; and brother, Marc J. Straus, M.D.