Ned Sharpless, one of the last presidential appointees from the Trump administration to be held over by President Joe Biden’s White House, will step down as director of the National Cancer Institute at the end of the month, the NCI announced Monday.
The announcement comes about two months after Biden announced plans to reignite the Cancer Moonshot, setting out what Sharpless called a “bold but ambitious” plan to cut in half cancer death rates by 25 years. But the president’s 2023 budget request proposed a $199 million cut to the NCI, leading to calls of disappointment from major cancer groups such as the American Association for Cancer Research and the American Society of Clinical Oncology.
Sharpless has led the NCI since October 2017. As NCI director, he ran the largest of the National Institutes of Health’s 27 institutes and centers, and is the NIH only institute head who requires a presidential appointment. He also led the Food and Drug Administration as acting commissioner for seven months in 2019 after Scott Gottlieb left that post. Sharpless expressed interest in taking up the FDA job permanently and was on the short list, but the Trump administration ultimately picked MD Anderson executive Steve Hahn.
“During my time in the federal government, I have been inspired by the ways that researchers, caregivers, advocates, and survivors have broken down silos to collaborate and embrace new ways of working together to solve some of the toughest problems in cancer. President Biden’s continued commitment to the Cancer Moonshot will foster even greater progress. The community stands ready to meet the President’s call to end cancer as we know it,” Sharpless said in a statement.
Sharpless dedicated many of his public remarks to improving health equity, calling on the cancer research community to eliminate racial inequalitiesilinked to cancer research and care.
“We simply can’t end cancer as we know it if we don’t reduce the cancers burden for all populations and eliminate these disparities” in cancer diagnosis, treatment, trial access, and patient outcomes, he said at a Friends of Cancer Research virtual event March 29.
Ellen Sigal, chair and founder of Friends, noted that Sharpless implemented much of the original cancer moonshot , which set forth foundational changes such as new paradigms to data-sharing, novel insights to early detection and prevention, and collaborative research tools that can be utilized by thousands to researchers.
Sharpless’ work also “contributed greatly to help lead us out of this pandemic by helping to validate COVID-19 testing while taking great care to assure cancer patients were still being treated and screened,” Sigal said in an email to Bloomberg Law.
“No matter what his title was, he always held patients as his north star,” Sigal said.
Sharpless’ last day will be April 29, and Doug Lowy, NCI’s principal deputy director, will serve as acting director effective April 30. This will mark Lowy’s third tour as acting director. He held that title between April 2015 and October 2017 and between April 2019 and October 2019.
The announcement also means Biden will have to nominate two NIH nominees as longtime director Francis S. Collins stepped down in December. While both the NIH and NCI director positions require a presidential appointment, the Senate only needs to confirm the NIH director. Collins is currently serving as the Biden’s acting science adviser.