Biden picks cancer surgeon Monica Bertagnolli to head NIH

U.S. President Joe Biden holds an event to highlight his administration's conservation initiatives, in Washington

By Julie Steenhuysen

(Reuters) - The Biden administration on Monday said it intends to nominate cancer surgeon Dr. Monica Bertagnolli to lead the National Institutes of Health (NIH) following a 16-month search for a permanent successor to the agency's long-serving director Dr. Francis Collins, who stepped down in December 2021.

If confirmed by the U.S. Senate, Bertagnolli will become the second woman to lead the NIH, the largest biomedical research agency in the world with a budget of $45 billion in 2022. NIH falls under the direction of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

"Dr. Bertagnolli is a world-class physician-scientist whose vision and leadership will ensure NIH continues to be an engine of innovation to improve the health of the American people," President Joe Biden said in a statement.

Bertagnolli's selection follows her appointment in October 2022 as director of the National Cancer Institute, a part of NIH, where she spearheaded a National Cancer Plan. Announced in April, the plan aims to reinvigorate Biden's 'Cancer Moonshot' program, which was first launched in 2016 by then Vice President Biden to accelerate progress in cancer research.

"She has done in that short amount of time, so many innovative things that will lead to real change," said Dr. Julie Gralow, chief medical officer and executive vice president of the American Society of Clinical Oncology, a group Bertagnolli led as president from 2018-2019.

Gralow said the National Cancer Plan reflects Bertagnolli's concern for equity in clinical trials and access to cancer treatment in underserved areas - a key focus at the NIH.

Bertagnolli previously served as head of surgical oncology at the Dana-Farber Brigham Cancer Center, a top cancer research facility.

Dana-Farber Surgeon-In-Chief, Dr. Gerard Doherty, who has known Bertagnolli for 30 years, said she is "extraordinarily qualified" to lead the NIH, noting early work in her career as a basic scientist in colon cancer and later work focused on the design and conduct of clinical trials.

"She's done a great job of getting things done in complicated organizations where they need lots of buy-in," he said.

In December, Bertagnolli announced that she had been diagnosed with early-stage breast cancer and would need surgery and possibly additional treatment, but added that the prognosis was very favorable.

"Dr. Bertagnolli is a physician scientist and a patient herself, and deeply understands the intricacies and personal impact of biomedical research," said Ellen Sigal, chair and founder of non-profit think tank Friends of Cancer Research.

Bernadine Healy was the first woman to head the NIH, serving from April 1991 to June 1993.

Collins, a genetics pioneer, was appointed as the head of NIH in 2009 by President Barack Obama, and went on to serve the agency under three presidents.

Lawrence Tabak has been performing the director duties since December 2021, after previously holding the roles of principal deputy director and deputy ethics counselor at NIH since 2010.

(Reporting by Julie Steenhuysen in Chicago, Doina Chiacu in Washington D.C. and Raghav Mahobe in Bengaluru; Editing by Bill Berkrot)