May 15, 2023 - Health

Biden nominates cancer surgeon to be second woman to head NIH

Monica Bertagnolli stands while being recognized by President Biden during a ceremony in Washington in 2022. Photo: Al Drago/Bloomberg via Getty Images

President Biden on Monday nominated National Cancer Institute director Monica Bertagnolli to be the next leader of the National Institutes of Health, moving to fill a key federal health opening that's been vacant for a year and a half.

The big picture: NIH has been without a political leader since longtime director Francis Collins stepped down in 2021, and the agency is facing intensifying criticism over its stewardship of coronavirus research, lagging efforts to study long COVID, and the review process for its research grants.

  • Bertagnolli, who was nominated to take the helm of the cancer institute last August, has a thin political resume but could face tough questions about the direction of the institutes in Senate confirmation hearings.
  • Bertagnolli is a Harvard Medical School professor and former surgical oncologist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. In December, she announced she had early stage breast cancer and would undergo treatment.
  • If confirmed, she would be the second woman to head NIH. Lawrence Tabak has served as acting director since Collins stepped down.

What they're saying: "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 Biden said in a statement.

Of note: NIH has long enjoyed bipartisan support in Congress but could get ensnared in funding fights and GOP-led oversight investigations this session.

  • The year-end funding package included $47.5 billion in discretionary funding for NIH. But Biden's fiscal 2024 budget request called for only a modest increase almost entirely tied to the "Cancer Moonshot" effort.

What we're watching: How the nomination intersects with congressional Republicans' criticism of Biden's COVID-19 response and concern about matters such as "gain of function" research.

  • Sanders and other Democrats have also been increasingly pressing NIH and Biden to use "march-in rights" to lower the prices of some drugs.

Editor's note: An earlier headline mistakenly said Bertagnolli would be the first woman to head NIH.

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