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October 24, 2006 • Volume 3 / Number 41 E-Mail This Document  |  Download PDF  |  Bulletin Archive/Search  |  Subscribe

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Director's Update

NCI Director's Swearing-In Remarks

Following are Dr. John E. Niederhuber's remarks made at his public swearing-in ceremony as NCI Director on October 18, 2006.

HHS Secretary Michael O. Leavitt officially swears in Dr. John E. Niederhuber as the 13th NCI Director Mr. Secretary, Dr. Zerhouni, fellow directors of the institutes and centers of the National Institutes of Health [NIH], honored guests, NCI colleagues, and my many friends: I am deeply indebted to all of you for being here today and for sharing with me this very special occasion in my life.

I want to express my gratitude to President Bush and to [Department of Health and Human Services/HHS] Secretary Leavitt for the privilege and distinct honor of serving as the director of the National Cancer Institute. I am profoundly humbled by your confidence in me and by the fact that you are willing to entrust me with the leadership and the distinguished history of this proud institution.

Never, in all the years of sitting on the edge of my patients' beds during late-evening rounds; of making the walk from the operating room to the family waiting area; of working in the lab with my students and fellows (some of whom are here today); of coming to Washington all those times to serve on committees for Vince, Sam, Rick, and, most recently, Andy - never did I picture myself standing at this podium at this time to accept the directorship of the National Cancer Institute.

And while I have been doing this job now for a year, I think it has only been in the past couple of weeks, since my official appointment, that the enormity of the responsibility of this position - the responsibility to our patients suffering with cancer - has really struck home.

On the day he formally proposed the National Cancer Act of 1971, President Nixon said, "The time has now come for us to put our money where our hopes are." But he also made it eminently clear that dollars weren't enough. "Money," Mr. Nixon continued, "can help set the stage for faster progress, but in the end it is our brainpower alone which can lead us to our goals."

President Nixon's words are even more fitting today. The momentum of our progress against cancer, and of biomedical research as a whole for all diseases, is occurring at a pace none of us could have predicted. For the very first time in more than 70 years that our country has kept statistics on cancer incidence and mortality, we have seen an actual, real decline in cancer deaths.

For every one of us here today, that is the hope - the promise - we have so desperately needed. This progress, this pace of discovery, and our nation's leadership position in biomedical research must not be taken for granted.

Today, even more so than in 1971, we face very real challenges, which test our ability to persuade the very brightest, the most visionary of our young people, to see the opportunities and the rewards of a career in biomedical research and patient care.

Our success - the ability to achieve our goals - depends on college students who see and who value the tremendous opportunities of a life immersed in scientific discovery: a life of service, of caring for those less fortunate. These young citizens need to have confidence that this great country will continue its investment in science. They need to be confident that productive careers await them.

NIH has long been the mechanism through which this great nation supports the world's premier biomedical research engine. Through its outstanding intramural laboratories and the support of an unmatched cadre of extramural scientists, we have been blessed with success after success.

There is no other NIH. There is no other place like NCI anywhere in the world. It is imperative that we tell our story, and that we work with the leaders of our country to ensure that the United States continues to lead the world, that we continue to serve the world.

Elias, my friend, I could not be more proud, nor can I think of any greater honor, than to be asked to join my colleagues on the NIH team. To my fellow institute and center directors, I extend a hand of friendship, of collegiality, and - perhaps most important - of collaboration.

While we at NCI are dedicated to lessening the burden of cancer, we also recognize that cancer has been, and will continue to be, a research model for many diseases. An article in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute provides a timely reminder of our importance as a community of scientists. "Progress," the author wrote, "has been most rapid in scientific research when imaginative, talented, technically curious, and, above all, sincerely interested investigators are encouraged to search for new facts, beyond the curtains that limit our knowledge and to pool their specialized resources and skills on a basis of mutual interest and respect."

That's a message we can - and do - embrace. But it is even more profound when you consider that the quote I just read comes from an article written nearly half a century ago, in 1957, by G. Burroughs Mider, NCI's associate director in charge of research. His words remind us that the need for scientific collaboration across disciplines is not a new idea.

It is my great hope that through my leadership at NCI and through the talented NCI scientific community, we can continue, and even fortify, the tradition Dr. Mider so eloquently described.

To the staff of NCI: I am honored and proud to work in your service. Institutions - university or government, private or public - that do great work and make a true difference in this world are always infused with people of enormous talent, commitment, and drive.

The importance of what we do at NCI - on behalf of every man, woman, or child who knows or fears cancer - cannot be underestimated. And, as a cancer research community, we are certainly not exempt from the disease we dedicate our careers to fight. Indeed, for a great many of our colleagues at NCI, cancer is a personal, as well as a professional, issue, because they - or perhaps I should say we - are survivors, patients, caregivers, or loved ones of cancer patients.

Sometimes, in the course of our lives, we talk about being in the right place at the right time. Sometimes we may speak of destiny or fate or direction. However we choose to interpret them, I believe that these important crossroads in life are about recognizing and grasping opportunities, and making all you can of them.

As I said earlier, the rapidity with which we are gaining new knowledge, coupled with the emergence of constantly advancing technologies, is creating greater opportunity to accelerate progress against cancer than any of us dared to dream at the time I began my career. Cancer, we know today, is a disease of alterations in genes, which accumulate over a lifetime. Each day, it seems, our insights grow deeper. We come to a greater understanding of the genetic changes that render a cell malignant. We learn more about the complex interactions of the cancer cell with its microenvironment and host. We learn more about the drivers of metastasis.

In today's post-genomic scientific environment, we are rapidly entering an entirely new era of risk determination, disease prevention, diagnosis, and highly targeted therapies. It is the era of genomically and proteomically characterized disease. As we move into this new era of personalized medicine, ideas, tactics, and techniques are coming from many sectors of science. The physical sciences and engineering are being applied to optimize the discovery, development, and, ultimately, the delivery of interventions to the patient. The once-futuristic tool of nanotechnology is being used to perform molecular classification of tumors to enable high-throughput screening and to predict therapeutic efficacy. Imaging is becoming a tool to ascertain just how much of a small molecule is reaching a targeted receptor and whether the therapeutic molecule changes cellular function. Computational biology - systems biology, if you will - is addressing issues such as information scale, modeling, simulations, and data interpretation.

For certain, new technologies will continue to blossom and multiply.

I know that our time together at NCI will hold moments of great success. I look forward to every exciting advance and discovery.

I also know our time together will bring many challenges. We are in a fiscal period in which management of NCI will involve the careful stewardship of finite resources.

I will do my best to provide you with an open door and a listening ear, with strong leadership skills honed in the operating room and the laboratory, to captain this team in difficult times. It will be up to the leaders of NCI to find and allocate the resources necessary to maintain our scientific momentum.

To this end, NCI will need to consider new partnerships in order to leverage resources and knowledge. We will need to carefully consider each new research program and scientific proposal. We will need to examine all existing programs, to search for ways to be leaner, but at the same time even better, in achieving our mission. Our responsibility is to continue conducting quality research, offering solutions to our challenges. As Albert Einstein said, "In the middle of every difficulty lies opportunity."

It is critical in these times that we communicate effectively across our various constituencies. As a cancer community, we must strive to speak with a more unified voice in order to call others to action on behalf of cancer research.

I believe we must work to find the best ways to bring the latest science to patients in the communities where they live - through our NCI-supported cancer centers, which are always referred to as the "crown jewels" of NCI - and by the building of a new rim of community-based cancer care.

We must make our science, our medical advances, available to all of our citizens, especially those who may lack the financial means, the language capacity, the education, or simply the physical strength to seek out the best care. We must bring our science - our technology - to the patients where they live.

I share the view of my friend and colleague John Seffrin, chief executive officer of the American Cancer Society, who so effectively states his belief that, in the next decade, patient access to our accomplishments - our science - will become a greater determinant of cancer mortality than any currently recognized cause.

In one of the most-quoted lines of American politics, the late Vice President Hubert Humphrey said the moral test of government is how it treats "those who are in the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the twilight of life, the elderly; and those who are in the shadows of life, the sick, the needy, and the handicapped."

It is, after all, our responsibility to continually earn, and always merit, the public's trust. We maintain that bond by being good financial stewards, by letting the best science be our guide, by clearly and plainly communicating what we learn about cancer, and by honestly saying what we have yet to learn. We should convey hope, but always be grounded in facts.

And so it is with an unshakable commitment - to every cancer patient, every survivor, advocate, friend, father, mother, son, daughter, and caregiver - that I sincerely thank you for the opportunity to serve this great institution and this great country, and solemnly pledge to do my very best. May God bless America, and give us the knowledge and wisdom to serve our patients.