WASHINGTON — The Biden administration has selected Monica Bertagnolli, a renowned surgical oncologist, as the next director of the National Cancer Institute, according to two sources familiar with the decision.
Bertagnolli, currently a surgeon at Dana-Farber Cancer Center and a professor at Harvard Medical School, will take the reins of the country’s largest biomedical research institute — a $7 billion agency that funds the lion’s share of U.S. cancer research and is central to the White House’s “Cancer Moonshot.”
The pick marks the start of a new era at the NCI, which is the largest of the 27 agencies that compose the National Institutes of Health. The agency’s former director, Ned Sharpless, stepped down in April after a nearly five-year tenure. Doug Lowy, a veteran cellular oncology researcher, is currently in his third stint as the agency’s acting director.
Bertagnolli, 63, has no shortage of leadership experience, both as a clinician and an executive: She formerly served as president of the American Society of Clinical Oncology and was recently elected as a National Academy of Medicine Fellow.
She has been dubbed a surgical “superstar,” and is the first woman to ever hold the title of Dana-Farber’s chief of surgical oncology, with a specialty of treating gastrointestinal cancers. When she takes office, she will also become the first woman to lead NCI since the agency was founded in 1937.
Bertagnolli is a longtime advocate of increasing diversity across the world of cancer research — not only in terms of the doctors treating patients and conducting research, but in terms of the racial and geographic makeup of patients enrolled in clinical trials.
She will serve as the top cancer researcher in an administration that has cast the agency’s work as a top priority. President Biden himself has been fixated on cancer research since 2015, when his son, Beau Biden, died from an aggressive brain cancer. Soon after, he launched the Obama administration’s initial “Cancer Moonshot.”
In its second iteration, the initiative’s goal is to cut cancer rates in half in the next 25 years — in Biden’s words, to “end cancer as we know it.” Biden has also cast ARPA-H, the federal government’s new high-stakes biomedical research agency, as a means of driving cancer breakthroughs.
The White House did not immediately respond to STAT’s request for comment.
“Dr. Bertagnolli is a terrific choice to be the 16th director of the National Cancer Institute,” Sharpless told STAT. “She’s a marvelous surgeon and national leader in cancer clinical trials. She’s just the right person to lead President Biden’s ‘Cancer Moonshot.’”
Outside cancer research advocates also applauded the news, including Ellen Sigal, the founder and chair of the D.C. nonprofit Friends of Cancer Research.
“Dr. Bertagnolli’s incredible career in medicine with both clinical and patient expertise perfectly positions her to lead the NCI,” she said in a statement. “[She] brings this incredible expertise to the agency at a true inflection point for cancer research.”
Though the NCI funds roughly $7 billion worth of science each year, it has struggled to keep up with the crush of researchers seeking funding for new projects. Its “payline” — the percentage of applications it funds — for the most common type of grant award sits at just 11%.
Bertagnolli’s appointment marks the latest in a series of decisions about the next generation of government scientific leadership. It follows the nomination of Arati Prabhakar, the former DARPA director, to lead the White House’s science office. And in the coming months, Biden is expected to announce a nominee to succeed Francis Collins as director of the National Institutes of Health, as well as an inaugural director for ARPA-H.