First Woman Director of the US National Cancer Institute

Sharon Worcester, MA

July 25, 2022

Cancer experts and organizations are applauding President Biden’s reported decision to appoint Monica M. Bertagnolli, MD, as director of the National Cancer Institute.

The appointment would make her the first woman to lead the NCI, the agency that funds the majority of cancer research in the United States.

The White House has yet to confirm the appointment, but news reports about the decision prompted supportive responses from the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO), the American Cancer Society (ACS), and the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR).

“An accomplished cancer surgeon and researcher with deep expertise in community-based cancer research, Dr. Bertagnolli has the knowledge, passion, and skillset to successfully lead the nation’s top federal cancer research agency and the wider US cancer research enterprise,” commented ASCO’s Chief Executive Officer Clifford A. Hudis, MD.

“We enthusiastically endorse her selection, recognizing Dr. Bertagnolli’s distinguished leadership and experience in advancing evidence-based cancer care and research,” he said in a statement.

Bertagnolli is currently the Richard E. Wilson Professor of Surgery in the Field of Surgical Oncology at Harvard University, and a member of the Gastrointestinal Cancer and Sarcoma Disease Centers at Dana-Farber/Brigham and Women’s Cancer Center, Boston, Massachusetts.

She also served as president of ASCO from 2018 to 2019. Hudis comments that “during her presidential year, she continually highlighted the need for oncologists to learn from every single patient with cancer, including through clinical research and the application of real-world data and real-world evidence, so that we can accelerate progress and every patient can have the best possible outcome for their disease.”

“During her ASCO tenure she also spearheaded efforts to increase access to equitable cancer care in rural areas and to develop mCODE® — short for Minimal Common Oncology Data Elements — a health data standard now approved by Health Level Seven International (HL7), designed to facilitate digital cancer data interoperability and improve patient care and research,” says Hudis.

"We know Dr. Bertagnolli is a powerful force and a perfect choice to lead the NCI as we face novel challenges but also some of the most exciting opportunities that promise to advance our insights, treatment, and care of patients with cancer,” Hudis adds.

‘No Better Choice’

The role of NCI director “is critical to ensuring ongoing innovation in oncology and Bertagnolli could not be a better choice to lead NCI into the bold future that is cancer discovery,” commented ACS national board Chair Michael Marquardt in a statement.

“In addition to holding many professional memberships and appointments, Bertagnolli also serves on the American Cancer Society (ACS)’s Board of Directors,” he noted. Her “candor, insight, and leadership experience made her an invaluable contributor in the deliberations of our national Board of Directors, and we will miss her … but she will be an excellent advocate for cancer patients and their families at the National Cancer Institute.”

The ACS and the ACS Cancer Action Network (ACS CAN) “are strongly supportive of this choice as the next NCI director,” add the society’s CEO Karen E. Knudsen, MBA, PhD.

“Dr. Bertagnolli is an exceptional surgical oncologist, innovative scientist, and leader who has a strong track record of transforming organizations to effect positive change,” Knudsen states. “She is also a fierce advocate for addressing healthcare disparities, particularly in underserved and rural communities.”

The AACR also supports the choice, says the association’s CEO Margaret Foti, MD, PhD, in its statement.

She highlights Bertagnolli’s “impressive qualifications” plus “her appreciation for the value and importance of basic research to advancing translational discoveries, as well as her commitment to ensuring that such treatment innovations reach patients in all populations across the United States.”

All this “will ensure that the NCI continues to lead the way in programs aimed at improving health, preventing cancer, and reducing the incidence and mortality from this devastating disease,” Foti comments.

As the new director of the NCI, Bertagnolli will be replacing Norman E. "Ned" Sharpless, MD, who announced in April that he is stepping down as NCI director after more than 4 years in the role, as reported by Medscape Medical News. NCI principal Deputy Director Douglas R. Lowy, MD, has served as acting director since the April 29 departure of Sharpless.

Sharon Worcester, MA, is an award-winning medical journalist based in Birmingham, Alabama, writing for Medscape, MDedge, and other affiliate sites. She currently covers oncology, but she has also written on a variety of other medical specialties and healthcare topics. She can be reached at  or on Twitter: @SW_MedReporter.

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