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Physician, scientist and patient: Biden’s nominee to lead NIH draws praise


Healthcare leaders applauded the choice of Monica Bertagnolli, who has been leading the National Cancer Institute. She recently disclosed her own diagnosis of breast cancer.

It’s been an eventful year for Monica Bertagnolli.

Monica Bertagnolli, director of the National Cancer Institute, has been nominated to lead the National Institutes of Health. (Photo: National Cancer Institute)

Monica Bertagnolli, director of the National Cancer Institute, has been nominated to lead the National Institutes of Health. (Photo: National Cancer Institute)

President Biden announced this week that he is nominating Bertagnolli to serve as the next director of the National Institutes of Health, the federal government’s primary agency financing medical research.

Bertagnolli began leading the National Cancer Institute, a part of the NIH, in October, becoming the first woman to serve as the director of the institute.

Just two months later, Bertagnolli disclosed that she was battling breast cancer. She said she had an early diagnosis and her prognosis was very favorable. In a statement at the time, Bertagnolli said, “To anyone with cancer today: I am truly in this together with you.”

Now, the president has chosen Bertagnolli to lead the NIH. Biden cited Bertagnolli’s work to advance the “Cancer Moonshot,” an initiative “to end cancer as we know it.” If confirmed by the Senate, Bertagnolli would succeed Lawrence Tabak, who has led the NIH in an interim capacity since the retirement of longtime NIH Director Francis Collins in December 2021.

“Dr. Bertagnolli has spent her career pioneering scientific discovery and pushing the boundaries of what is possible to improve cancer prevention and treatment for patients, and ensuring that patients in every community have access to quality care,” Biden said in a statement released by the White House.

In a February interview with NPR, Bertagnolli said she was doing well in her treatment. "I'm well into my treatment. And my family and my physicians are taking very good care of me," she told NPR.

The president’s nomination of Bertagnolli, a cancer surgeon, to lead the NIH has earned widespread praise from healthcare and research leaders.

Research!America, an organization that advocates for health and medical studies, cheered Biden’s choice of Bertagnolli.

“Dr. Bertagnolli is a leader who brings vision, hands-on-experience, and heart to a role that demands all three attributes,” Research!America said in a statement.

The American Association for the Advancement of Science said it strongly supports Bertagnolli’s nomination.

“As an accomplished physician-scientist, Dr. Bertagnolli has the credentials and personal experience to bring new vision at a critical juncture for NIH to define its role in the evolving and expanding biomedical innovation ecosystem,” the AAAS said. “Her rare combination of clinical and data science research expertise together with the lived experience of her journey as a patient will bring a vital perspective to NIH.”

Some advocates who are supporting Bertagnolli’s nomination pointed to her commitment to ensure that advances in medical research are available to all communities.

Dr. Karen E. Knudsen, CEO of the American Cancer Society, pointed to Bertagnolli’s commitment to health equity and her support of efforts to expand Medicaid. Knudsen called Bertagnolli a “fierce advocate for addressing healthcare disparities.”

"Dr. Bertagnolli understands not only the importance of advancing discovery but the criticality of ensuring that innovation is accessible to all," Knudsen said in a statement.

David J. Skorton, president and CEO of the Association of American Medical Colleges, and Chief Scientific Officer Ross McKinney Jr., the AAMC’s chief scientific officer, hailed Biden’s pick, calling Bertagnolli a “distinguished clinician, scientist, and executive leader.”

“Throughout her career, she has advocated for increasing diversity in cancer care – both in advancing the diversity of doctors who are treating patients and conducting research, and in the racial and geographic makeup of people enrolled in clinical trials,” the AAMC leaders said in a statement.

Jason Resendez, president and CEO of the National Alliance for Caregiving, said he hoped Bertagnolli would advance research on the millions of Americans who care for loved ones.

“Her experience as a physician-scientist, cancer survivor and family caregiver put her in a unique position to advance the NIH’s mission and to improve the health of the American people, including the 53 million unpaid family caregivers who too often get overlooked in research and care,” he said in a statement.

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.

Biden has seen some changes in key healthcare posts. Earlier this month, Rochelle Walensky said she plans to step down as director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Her last day will be June 30.

In a release from the CDC, Walensky cited the end of the federal government’s Public Health Emergency for the COVID-19 pandemic as a time for transition.

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