President Joe Biden is expected to pick cancer surgeon Monica Bertagnolli as the next director of the National Cancer Institute (NCI). Bertagnolli, a physician-scientist at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston and Harvard Medical School, specializes in gastrointestinal cancers and is well known for her expertise in clinical trials. She will replace Ned Sharpless, who stepped down as NCI director in April after nearly 5 years.
The White House has not yet announced the selection, first reported by STAT, but several cancer research organizations closely watching for the nomination have issued statements supporting Bertagnolli’s expected selection. She is “a national leader” in clinical cancer research and “a great person to take the job,” Sharpless told ScienceInsider.
With a budget of $7 billion, NCI is the largest component of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the world’s largest funder of cancer research. Its director is the only NIH institute director selected by the president. Bertagnolli’s expected appointment, which does not require Senate confirmation, drew applause from the cancer research community
Margaret Foti, CEO of the American Association for Cancer Research, praised Bertagnolli’s “appreciation for … basic research” and “commitment to ensuring that such treatment innovations reach patients … across the United States.” Ellen Sigal, chair and founder of Friends of Cancer Research, says Bertagnolli “brings expertise the agency needs at a true inflection point for cancer research.”
Bertagnolli, 63, will be the first woman to lead NCI. Her lab research on tumor immunology and the role of a gene called APC in colorectal cancer led to a landmark trial she headed showing that an anti-inflammatory drug can help prevent this cancer. In 2007, she became the chief of surgery at the Dana-Farber Brigham Cancer Center.
She served as president of the American Society of Clinical Oncology in 2018 and currently chairs the Alliance for Clinical Trials in Oncology, which is funded by NCI’s National Clinical Trials Network. The network is a “complicated” program, and “Monica will have a lot of good ideas on how to make it work better,” Sharpless says.
One of Bertagnolli’s first tasks will be to shape NCI’s role in Biden’s reignited Cancer Moonshot, which aims to slash the U.S. cancer death rate in half within 25 years. NCI’s new leader also needs to sort out how the agency will mesh with a new NIH component that will fund high-risk, goal-driven research, the Advanced Research Projects Agency for Health (ARPA-H).
Bertagnolli will also head NCI efforts already underway to boost grant funding rates, diversify the cancer research workplace, and reduce higher death rates for Black people with cancer.
The White House recently nominated applied physicist Arati Prabhakar to fill another high-level science position, director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP). But still vacant is the NIH director slot, which Francis Collins, acting science adviser to the president, left in December 2021. And the administration hasn’t yet selected the inaugural director of ARPA-H.
Correction, 22 July, 9 a.m.: This story has been updated to reflect that Francis Collins is acting science adviser to the president, not acting director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.