White House to appoint Monica Bertagnolli as 16th NCI director

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President Joe Biden has announced his intent to appoint Monica Bertagnolli as the 16th director of the National Cancer Institute—and the first woman and first chair of a clinical trials cooperative group to be named to the role.

The White House announcement Aug. 10 comes nearly three weeks after news of Bertagnolli’s appointment leaked out on Twitter and in the press (The Cancer Letter, July 21, 2022).

“Dr. Bertagnolli lends to this effort one of the most powerful voices in the country for cancer patients, particularly for those in rural and remote communities, with a history of advancing patient-focused programs that incorporate learnings directly from patient experiences to build more inclusive models of care,” the White House said in a statement.

It’s not publicly known when Bertagnolli will be appointed.

“She is an outstanding physician-scientist,” NCI Acting Director Douglas Lowy said at a Aug. 31 meeting of the National Cancer Advisory Board. “The vetting process takes a certain amount of time, but we are looking forward to her assuming the leadership role of the NCI. And as many of you are already aware, she will be the first woman as the NCI director.”

Bertagnolli will lead NCI at a time when the White House is directing federal agencies to focus on halving the cancer death rate in the United States over the next 25 years—a goal of Biden’s reignited Cancer Moonshot (The Cancer Letter, Feb. 4, 2022).

“I look forward to working with Dr. Bertagnolli to advance the President’s call to end cancer as we know it,” Xavier Becerra, secretary of the U.S. Health and Human Services, said in a statement. “Dr. Bertagnolli’s decades of cancer research expertise 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.”

Bertagnolli currently serves as the Richard E. Wilson professor of surgery at Harvard Medical School. She is chief of the Division of Surgical Oncology at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and is a member of the Gastrointestinal Cancer and Sarcoma Disease Centers at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute.

At NCI, Bertagnolli replaces Ned Sharpless, who stepped down April 29 (The Cancer Letter, April 9, 2022). 

“I am excited to welcome Dr. Bertagnolli to NCI,” NCI’s Lowy wrote in an email Aug. 10 to his colleagues. “Dr. Bertagnolli and I are both committed to working closely together to make the transition as smooth and seamless as possible. It has been my great honor to serve as NCI’s Acting Director, and I will continue in this position until Dr. Bertagnolli can be sworn in.”

“We know Dr. Bertagnolli is a powerful force and a perfect choice to lead the NCI as we face novel challenges but also some of the most exciting opportunities that promise to advance our insights, treatment, and care of patients with cancer,” the American Society of Clinical Oncology said in a statement. “An accomplished cancer surgeon and researcher with deep expertise in community-based cancer research, Dr. Bertagnolli has the knowledge, passion, and skillset to successfully lead the nation’s top federal cancer research agency and the wider U.S. cancer research enterprise. 

“We enthusiastically endorse her selection, recognizing Dr. Bertagnolli’s distinguished leadership and experience in advancing evidence-based cancer care and research.”

“Dr. Bertagnolli brings impressive qualifications to this vital position, including her background as an outstanding physician-scientist and much admired professor,” Margaret Foti, chief executive officer of the American Association for Cancer Research, said in a statement. “Her appreciation for the value and importance of basic research to advancing translational and clinical discoveries, as well as her commitment to ensuring that such treatment innovations reach patients in all populations across the United States, will ensure that the NCI continues to lead the way in programs aimed at improving health, preventing cancer, and reducing the incidence and mortality from this devastating disease.”

“AACI prioritizes diversity, equity, and inclusion, particularly as they relate to the cancer center leadership pipeline and clinical trials,” Caryn Lerman, AACI president and director of USC Norris Comprehensive Cancer Center, said in a statement.

“President Biden has chosen the perfect person for the job,” said Ellen Sigal, chair & founder of Friends of Cancer Research. “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 President Biden’s Cancer Moonshot.

“Dr. Bertagnolli has had a celebrated career in medicine, working as a surgeon at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and Brigham and Women’s Hospital in significant leadership roles,” Sigal said. “Dr. Bertagnolli brings expertise the agency needs at a true inflection point for cancer research.”

An earlier version of this story was published online Aug. 10, 2022 and has been updated to include NCI Acting Director Douglas Lowy’s Aug. 31 remarks. 

Associate Editor
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Associate Editor