Friday, June 2, 2023

White House to tap cancer leader Monica Bertagnolli as new NIH director

Monica Bertagnolli currently leads the US National Cancer Institute (NCI).Credit: AP Photo/Jeff Chiu/Alamy

In a hotly anticipated decision, the White House will likely nominate Monica Bertagnolli, the current head of the US National Cancer Institute (NCI), to lead the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) next week, a source who is familiar with the decision told Nature.

If confirmed by the US Senate, Bertagnolli will take over the largest public funder of biomedical research in the world, with a budget of over $47 billion. The decision comes nearly a year and a half after geneticist Francis Collins, who helmed the agency for more than 12 years, stepped down in December 2021.

“I don’t think there could be a better choice for this role,” says Suzanne George, a medical oncologist at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston, Massachusetts who has worked with Bergnatolli. “As a leader, she brings people together to tackle new challenges in novel, innovative and inclusive ways.”

The Wall Street Journal reported on Bertagnolli’s planned nomination reported on Bertagnolli’s planned nomination on 19 April.

Cancer surgeon

After serving a brief 6-month stint as the first female NCI director, Bertagnolli would be the second permanent female director of the NIH if she is confirmed.

A cancer surgeon, Bertagnolli was also the first woman to lead the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute’s surgical oncology division. And she was the president of the American Society of Clinical Oncology, an organization in Alexandria, Virginia, that represents cancer physicians, and led the Alliance for Clinical Trials in Oncology, which works with the NCI to develop and lead cancer clinical trials.

In December, Bertagnolli announced that she had been diagnosed with breast cancer. At the American Association for Cancer Research meeting in Orlando, Florida this week, Bertagnolli said that her treatment had gone well and that her prognosis is “incredibly good”.

“It’s not a walk in the park,” she said of the experience. “But I’ve had tremendous support.” Bertagnolli also noted that she participated in a clinical trial to develop a new diagnostic testing approach.

Challenges ahead

That it is has taken more than a year to find Collins’ replacement has raised some concerns given the NIH’s broad research portfolio and its role in funding COVID-19 research.

The potential nomination comes as House Republicans have vowed to investigate the NIH’s role related to the pandemic. The Senate confirmation process for NIH director picks is typically uncontroversial, but some worry that the politicization of science during the COVID-19 pandemic might erode the bipartisan support the NIH has typically received.

The next NIH director will have their work cut out for them: in addition to managing congressional probes, researchers have called on the NIH to take bold action to bolster the diversity of the biomedical workforce, speed the pace of innovation and ensure the agency continues to fund research at a rate that is on pace with inflation.

The White House and Bertagnolli did not immediately respond to a request for comment. The NIH referred Nature to the White House for comment.

This is a developing story and will be further updated.

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