Cancer Surgeon to Lead NIH

Posted on: April 28th, 2023 by admin 1 Comment
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When CapeRay was still in its infancy at the University of Cape Town (UCT), Kit Vaughan and Tania Douglas were awarded a competitive grant by the NIH’s National Cancer Institute (R21 CA101705). Entitled “Low dose digital X-rays for mammography screening,” the grant allowed them to build a working prototype and ultimately to secure venture capital funding that led to the company being spun out from UCT. In retrospect, it would be fair to conclude that CapeRay could not have existed without the NIH funding.

In August 2022, we reported that the National Cancer Institute (NCI) had just appointed the cancer surgeon, Dr Monica Bertagnolli, as its new director, the first woman to occupy this position. Just weeks after taking over the largest of the NIH’s institutes, the 63-year-old was diagnosed with early-stage breast cancer that was followed by successful treatment with surgery, chemotherapy, and radiotherapy. Earlier this month, she unveiled the National Cancer Plan that provides a framework for “ending cancer as we know it,” which is the ambitious aim of the Cancer Moonshot.

In today’s edition of Science it was announced that Bertagnolli (seen left, © AAAS) will be nominated by President Joe Biden as the 17th director of NIH, replacing Francis Collins who stepped down 16 months ago. She is best known for her research on the molecular origins of colorectal cancer and metastatic melanoma and has also made contributions to our understanding of secondary sarcomas after radiotherapy for breast cancer. Commenting on her own treatment, she said, “I’m incredibly grateful to this national [database] personally, because it’s the data that is informing the care I’m receiving today.”

Bertagnolli’s nomination to lead the NIH has been extraordinarily well received by the scientific community. Carol Greider, a Nobel Prize-winning biologist (seen below right, © Keith Weller), said: “I am thrilled. Having an accomplished woman leader nominated to this position is a powerful signal.” She does still need to be interviewed by, and gain the approval of the Senate but, since the Democrats are in the majority, her confirmation appears certain.

One of Bertagnolli’s strongest supporters is Harold Varmus, winner of a Nobel Prize for discovering oncogenes, who has served as director of both NCI and NIH. He says he was won over by her comments after she was appointed NCI director. He commented, “I’m very enthusiastic about her nomination and think she’ll be great. I’m confident her interest in how organisms work and how they go awry will be carried over into other areas.”

One Response

  1. DANIEL B KOPANS says:

    New leadership at the NIH is always a period of excitement and hope and this should be no different. As a breast cancer researcher and clinician, and with a new NIH leader who has, unfortunately, had breast cancer, I hope that there will be more support for early detection. There have been huge investments in the development of treatments which I support, but support for early detection through imaging has been lacking. We have spent enormous amounts of time and energy responding to the “whack-a-mole” efforts to reduce access for women to early detection instead of improving early detection methods. My hope is that the new Director will provide the critical support.

    One of the immediate initiatives would be to support the American College of Radiology’s effort to have the SEER database include the Method of Detection (MOD). It is astonishing and outrageous, that, given all the decades-long debate about breast cancer screening, SEER does not include how cancers are detected in the U.S. This would provide more direct information on the importance early detection plays in reducing deaths. The ACR has developed a way to collect this information to facilitate inclusion by registry registrars. My hope is that this will soon be added to SEER and that, until there is a universal curative therapy, we will continue to improve our ability to detect breast cancers at a time when present therapy is curative.