Norman Sharpless, MD, to Head National Cancer Institute

June 12, 2017

President Donald Trump has selected Norman "Ned" Sharpless, MD, the director of a high-profile cancer center and an eminent researcher into oncology and genetics, to head the National Cancer Institute (NCI), part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

The appointment of Dr Sharpless has received positive reviews from the oncology community. He replaces acting NCI director Doug Lowy, MD, who took over that spot in 2015. In his new role, announced last week, Dr Sharpless will help pilot the Beau Biden Cancer Moonshot.

Since 2014, Dr Sharpless has been the director of the University of North Carolina Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center, one of 14 cancer centers and molecular medicine organizations that are collaborating with IBM to use its Watson supercomputer to help guide the treatment of cancer patients. Dr Sharpless also treats patients at the Lineberger-affiliated NC Cancer Hospital. He joined Lineberger in 2002.

Dr Norman Sharpless

Dr Sharpless has authored more than 150 scientific papers, reviews, and book chapters, beginning with two lead-author credits while he was a medical student at the University of North Carolina. In an interview posted on the Lineberger website he said that he fell in love with biomedical research when he participated in a scholars program at the NIH during a 1-year break from medical school.

"Within two weeks I was telling people that science was what I was going to do," Dr Sharpless said. "It was almost like being an artist, but at the same time it was data driven and you got to use math and talk to people. You could work at 3 am if you wanted."

As a researcher, he is best known for his study of how normal cells age and turn malignant. His work on the expression of the p16 tumor suppression protein pointed to its role in not only cancer but also in type 2 diabetes and atherosclerosis.

A holder of 10 patents, Dr Sharpless cofounded two biomedical companies, G1 Therapeutics and HealthSpan Diagnostics. The former is developing oncology drugs and the latter a blood test to determine a patient's "molecular age" by measuring p16 expression.

Dr Sharpless' appointment to head the NCI garnered applause in oncology circles. Bruce Johnson, MD, president of the American Society of Clinical Oncology, said in a news release that his organization "is encouraged that NCI will have at its helm an accomplished researcher with experience leading a wide range of clinical and translational research endeavors." The American Cancer Society called him an "excellent choice."

In addition to praising Dr Sharpless as "an outstanding scientist, clinician, and administrator," NIH Director Francis Collins, MD, PhD — an Obama appointee retained by Trump just last week —  gave a shout-out to Dr Lowy for having "served brilliantly as the acting NCI director."

"Dr Lowy skilfully took the reins at NCI and led the agency as it developed and implemented the NIH component of the Beau Biden Cancer Moonshot Initiative as well as many other important programs and scientific ventures," Dr Collins said in a news release.

Follow Robert Lowes on Twitter @LowesRobert

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