MONDAY, May 15, 2023 (HealthDay News) -- The U.S. National Institutes of Health could get a new leader in Dr. Monica Bertagnolli, the Boston cancer surgeon who's led the U.S. National Cancer Institute (NCI) since last fall.
On Monday President Joe Biden formally nominated Bertagnolli to the post, which has been filled by an interim director since December 2021, the Washington Post reported. She would have to be confirmed by the U.S. Senate.
“Dr. Bertagnolli has spent her career pioneering scientific discovery and pushing the boundaries of what is possible to improve cancer prevention and treatment,” Biden said in a statement. She “will ensure NIH continues to be an engine of innovation to improve the health of the American people.”
Bertagnolli, the first woman to head the NCI, is known for being high-energy, unflappable and willing to take on challenging cases.
"In her seven-month tenure as National Cancer Institute Director, Dr. Bertagnolli quickly demonstrated her strategic and comprehensive approach to accelerating progress in cancer prevention, detection and treatment," said Karen Knudsen, CEO of the American Cancer Society and ACS Cancer Action Network (CAN). "Among her accomplishments in the last half year, Dr. Bertagnolli released a robust Cancer Plan, laying out an inspired roadmap to advance the Cancer Moonshot Initiative, to end cancer as we know it."
That’s all despite being diagnosed with breast cancer herself during a routine mammogram weeks after taking the helm at the NCI.
Bertagnolli’s breast cancer is hormone receptor-positive, HER2-negative. It is treatable, with a very favorable prognosis.
The NIH was long led by Dr. Francis Collins, known for landmark genetics discoveries. Dr. Lawrence Tabak is the acting director.
Bertagnolli's new job would come with potential scrutiny and Republican-led investigations into NIH funding of virus research. This includes grants to a nonprofit called EcoHealth Alliance that studied coronaviruses in Wuhan, China.
“We know that EcoHealth has failed to publish all its work and has, in fact, refused to share its work with the U.S. government,” Rep. Brad Wenstrup (R-Ohio), leader of a House panel investigating the coronavirus response, said at a hearing in April.
The inspector general for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has alleged that the NIH failed to “appropriately monitor” EcoHealth’s work, though the nonprofit has denied wrongdoing, according to the Post.
Democrats, too, have concerns about the agency's structure and whether it is a good fit for a climate that prizes breakthroughs from private-sector companies and philanthropists.
“I’m a big fan of the NIH … but I will say, I’m concerned by the pace of scientific research that we’re seeing,” Rep. Josh Harder (D-Calif.) said at a hearing last month on NIH’s budget requests.
Bertagnolli’s work at the cancer institute has included a plan to reduce cancer deaths and achieve President Joe Biden’s “moonshot” initiative, which aims to cut the U.S. cancer death rate by at least 50% over the next 25 years. She also has focused on streamlining the complications and costs of studies.
"As Director of the National Cancer Institute, Dr. Bertagnolli has advanced my Cancer Moonshot to end cancer as we know it," Biden said. "She has brought together partners and resources from different sectors to launch groundbreaking efforts in cancer prevention and early detection, a national navigation program for childhood cancers, and additional programs to bring clinical trials to more Americans."
As a surgeon, Bertagnolli is known for taking on technically difficult, high-risk surgeries while keeping the mood in the operating room “happy and weirdly comfortable and easygoing,” said Dr. Atul Gawande, a surgeon and writer who trained under Bertagnolli and is now the assistant administrator for global health at the U.S. Agency for International Development.
Bertagnolli, 64, studied chemical engineering at Princeton University and graduated from the University of Utah School of Medicine. She is also the mother of a son with autism.
She has called for improving health equity to accelerate progress against cancer deaths.
Knudsen said the American Cancer Society and ACS CAN strongly support the choice of Bertagnolli.
"Dr. Bertagnolli is not only an exceptional surgical oncologist, innovative scientist and leader with a strong track record of transforming organizations, she also has firsthand knowledge of the patient perspective as well," Knudsen said in a statement.
"ACS and ACS CAN strongly support this choice as the next NIH director," she said.
The U.S. National Cancer Institute has more on the Cancer Moonshot initiative.
SOURCES: White House news release; Washington Post; joint statement, American Cancer Society and American Cancer Society Action Network, April 20, 2023