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Monica Bertagnolli takes over National Cancer Institute, joins women in top research posts

Bertagnolli is the first woman to lead the institute. President Biden has been choosing women for key science roles in his administration.

This week, Monica M. Bertagnolli made history when she began serving as the director of the National Cancer Institute.

She’s the 16h person to run the National Cancer Institute, which is part of the National Institutes of Health, the prime source of federal funds for research. She’s also the first woman to hold the director’s post.

“I am thrilled to begin my work at NCI, in partnership with the cancer community,” Bertagnolli said in a statement Wednesday. “I think of the patients I’ve lost in 37 years as a doctor and how much more we can do for people today. That progress drives me to do more—to do everything we can to save more lives.”

While Bertagnolli is making history, she’s one of a few women holding key federal health and research posts in President Biden’s administration.

Late last month, the Senate confirmed Arati Prabhakar, to serve as director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy. Also in September, Biden chose Renee Wegrzyn to lead a brand-new agency focused on cutting edge research: the Advanced Research Projects Agency for Health (ARPA-H).

Biden has placed great attention on healthcare and science, most notably with his “cancer moonshot.” The president, who lost his son, Beau, to cancer, has said he wants to end cancer as we know it, and see it become a treatable disease.

‘I hate cancer’

Bertagnolli talks bluntly about her mission and the importance of the cancer moonshot.

“Put simply, I hate cancer, ” Bertagnolli wrote on Twitter Wednesday. “The pain of lost patients and devastated families drives me to improve how we develop interventions and deliver #CancerCare for all. We must challenge conventional thinking and remove arbitrary restrictions.”

She succeeds Norman E. Sharpless, who stepped down in April 2022. Douglas R. Lowy has been serving as the cancer institute’s acting director.

She outlined some of her top priorities earlier this week.

“I see our work as aimed at three broad goals: understanding how cancer arises and what biological processes it disrupts; developing and testing new prevention and therapy approaches; and partnering with patients to develop ways for all people to receive the care that best meets their needs and, if they wish, to participate in research,” she said in a statement.

“With the passion and commitment of the President and his administration to the Cancer Moonshot, I believe the opportunities before us to improve the outlook for cancer patients are unprecedented.”

Lawrence A. Tabak, the acting director of the NIH, praised Bertagnolli’s work as a surgical oncologist and her leadership in cancer research. “She is ideally suited to lead NCI at a point in time when opportunities abound for major advancements in cancer research and cancer care,” Tabak said.

Heidi Nelson, cancer programs medical director of the American College of Surgeons, said in July that she “cannot imagine a person more qualified than Dr. Bertagnolli to lead the NCI; this is a great decision made by the Biden administration.

“Dr. Bertagnolli has played a transformative role as a scientist, surgeon, and leader in the cancer community for decades and she will bring great knowledge and experience to this new leadership role,” Nelson said in a statement. “We know her vision for cancer research and her contributions at this national level will be significant, impactful, and sustainable and we look forward to supporting her leadership and vision.”

Bertagnolli served as an attending surgeon at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital/Weill Cornell Medical Center before joining Harvard Medical School and Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in 1999.

She has served as vice president of Coalition of Cancer Cooperative Groups; group chair of the Alliance for Clinical Trials in Oncology; president of the Alliance for Clinical Trials in Oncology Foundation; and CEO of Alliance Foundation Trials. She served as president of the American Society of Clinical Oncology in 2018-19 and was elected to the National Academy of Medicine in 2021.

‘An important new perspective’

Arati Prabhakar, who was confirmed as President Biden’s top science adviser on Sept. 22,, is making history on a few fronts.

Prabhakar is the first woman to lead the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. She’s also the first person of color and the first immigrant to be nominated for the post, the White House said. The Senate confirmed her with a 56-40 post.

The president nominated Prabhakar for the post in June.

Mary Woolley, president and CEO of Research!America, an advocacy group supporting investments in science, lauded Prahakar’s confirmation to the post.

“We believe Dr. Prabhakar will work effectively across the federal government to help ensure science, technology, and innovation can continue to drive economic growth, create good jobs, and address urgent threats to our health and well-being,” Woolley said in a statement. “The American science enterprise and the American public will be well-served by her leadership.”

Johanna Chao Kreilick, president of the Union of Concerned Scientists, said in a statement last week, “Dr. Arati Prabhakar’s exceptional qualifications will serve OSTP well at this critical moment.”

“She’s a respected scientist with an outstanding career in public service,” Kreilick  said. “Her leadership at the Defense Advanced Research Products Agency and National Institute of Standards and Technology shows she understands the role the federal government can play in spurring scientific innovation. As the first woman, the first immigrant, and the first person of color confirmed to this role, Dr. Prabhakar brings an important new perspective to OSTP.”

Eric Lander, Biden’s previous science adviser, stepped down in February after reports emerged that he had treated staffers badly, the Associated Press reported. Lander’s resignation was the first cabinet-level departure in the Biden administration.

Leading a new agency

Biden selected Renee Wegrzyn to be the first director of the new agency that has been a high priority: the Advanced Research Projects Agency for Health (ARPA-H).  He announced his plan to appoint Wegrzyn on Sept. 12, the 60th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy’s famous moonshot speech, just as he called for more attention on the cancer moonshot.

She had been serving as a vice president of Gingko Bioworks, a biotechnology firm in Boston, and has held key posts in federal research agencies.

“Some of the problems we face every day – especially in health and disease – are so large they can seem insurmountable,” Wegrzyn said in a statement last month. “I have seen firsthand the tremendous expertise and energy the U.S. biomedical and biotechnological enterprise can bring to solve some of the toughest health challenges.”

ARPA-H is conceived as an agency taking a different approach to scientific studies. The Biden administration has said the agency will focus on high-risk, high-reward research aimed at finding novel breakthroughs in cancer.

Woolley said Wegrzyn brings “an extraordinary breadth and depth of relevant experience.”

“ARPA-H adds a new dimension to our R&D ecosystem, leveraging every sector within that system to trailblaze crosscutting innovations in the way medical progress is achieved,” Wooley said in a statement. “This appointment is an important milestone for ARPA-H, for patients, and for the future of health.”

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