A woman will lead the National Cancer Institute for the first time in the agency’s 85-year history, under an announcement made official by the White House on Wednesday.
President Biden announced his intention to appoint Monica M. Bertagnolli, a respected cancer surgeon with posts at Harvard Medical School, Brigham & Women’s Hospital and the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, as the 16th director of the NCI. The White House announcement comes several weeks after her name came up as the president’s pick as he seeks to cut the disease’s death rate in half over the next 25 years through the reignited Cancer Moonshot.
“I am incredibly grateful and humbled to have the opportunity to serve as the next director of the National Cancer Institute,” Bertagnolli said in a statement released by Brigham & Women’s.
“I’ve had the good fortune of working with so many brilliant colleagues who care deeply about eradicating this disease and alleviating the suffering of those who face it. I’m looking forward to supporting them and bringing hope to the entire cancer community through the work of the NCI,” she said.
It’s unclear when Bertagnolli will start her new government post, but a spokesperson for Brigham & Women’s confirmed that she’s still a surgeon at the hospital and they expect her to “transition over this fall.”
First established in 1937, the National Cancer Institute is the US government’s primary cancer research and training center. It’s also the largest of the National Institutes of Health’s 27 institutes and centers, and the only one that requires a presidential appointment.
The White House described her in Wednesday’s statement as “one of the most powerful voices in the country for cancer patients.” Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra said her work around “patient-centered care and her work to create more inclusive clinical trials will be instrumental as we accelerate the rate of research and innovation to fight cancer.”
Acting NIH Director Lawrence A. Tabak said Bertagnolli’s “decades of clinical and leadership experience make her ideally suited to lead NCI going forward, including spearheading President Biden’s Cancer Moonshot Initiative.”
Ellen Sigal, chair and founder of Friends of Cancer Research, called Bertagnolli the perfect person for the job. “We need a visionary like Dr. Bertagnolli to lead the NCI at this exciting time for innovation and to be at the center of the next generation of Cancer Moonshot.
The administration still needs to nominate an NIH director and an inaugural head of the Advanced Research Projects Agency for Health—the biomedical innovation accelerator that will start out with a large focus on cancer. The Biden administration also will likely need to find someone to replace Anthony S. Fauci, Biden’s chief medical adviser and director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, who said he plans to retire before the end of Biden’s term in 2025.
Bertagnolli replaces Ned Sharpless, one of the few Trump administration appointees to be held over in the Biden administration who stepped down in April. Doug Lowy, the NCI’s second in command, stepped in as acting director, marking his third time leading the institute in that capacity.