Bertagnolli, the director of the National Cancer Institute who has been receiving treatment for her own case of early-stage breast cancer, was previously chief of surgical oncology at Dana-Farber Brigham Cancer Center in Boston, president of the American Society of Clinical Oncology and chair of a clinical trials organization. If confirmed by the Senate, she would become the 17th director of the sprawling research agency and the second woman to lead it.
Biden’s planned selection of Bertagnolli was first reported last month. The NIH director position has been empty since Francis S. Collins stepped down in December 2021 after a 12-year tenure. Lawrence A. Tabak, a longtime NIH administrator, has been serving as the agency’s acting director.
The Association of Public and Land-grant Universities called on the Senate to quickly confirm Bertagnolli.
“Dr. Bertagnolli is a gifted surgeon and trailblazing research leader whose personal and professional experience positions her to lead NIH at a critical time,” Mark Becker, the association’s president, said in a statement.
The NIH has faced mounting scrutiny from Republicans who have launched investigations of the coronavirus pandemic, including whether the agency’s funding of virus research inadvertently led to the pandemic. House Republicans last week also passed a bill that would potentially cut NIH funding by billions of dollars, prompting warnings from agency officials.
“There will be a chilling effect on the entire biomedical research enterprise,” Tabak said at a Senate hearing this month. “It’ll decrease interest in research careers. … It really bodes poorly for the future of biomedical science.”
Meanwhile, progressives and advocacy organizations have put their own pressures on NIH, anticipating Biden’s announcement of a new director.
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who leads the Senate health committee that will review Bertagnolli’s nomination, told The Washington Post this month that he would oppose health agency nominees who wouldn’t “stand up and fight” the drug industry.
Sanders pointed to NIH’s rejection of a petition by prostate cancer patients to allow the government to step in and license patent rights to another manufacturer for pricey cancer drug Xtandi as a policy that he wanted reversed. Eight advocacy organizations this month also called on the Biden administration to grant the patients’ appeal.
The Biden administration in March announced plans to review whether it had authority to step in and license patent rights to certain drugs.
Ellen Sigal, chair and founder of Friends of Cancer Research, an advocacy group, praised the nomination of Bertagnolli to head NIH.
“Dr. Bertagnolli is a physician-scientist and a patient herself, and deeply understands the intricacies and personal impact of biomedical research,” she said.