Assuming the Role of NCI Center for Global Health Director: Advancing Global Oncology Research
, by Dr. Satish Gopal
When I accepted the position of NCI Center for Global Health (CGH) Director, my work with NIH, the UNC Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center, and NCI truly came full circle. Before coming to NCI, I lived in Malawi with my family from 2012 to 2019 and worked as a medical oncologist in the public sector national teaching hospital in the capital, Lilongwe. During this period, I witnessed first-hand how impactful global health research directly benefits people worldwide. This was clear at a macroscopic scale, as high-quality research in HIV transformed the epidemic in the United States along with the development outlook for countries across sub-Saharan Africa, and also on an intensely personal scale, when my young daughter survived cerebral malaria after receiving medicines which had been tested in clinical trials conducted in Asia and Africa. I also witnessed first-hand the reverence with which NIH and NCI are often regarded in international settings, as beacons of American scientific discovery and innovation in service of people everywhere.
During my previous life as an NCI-funded extramural investigator, I conducted global cancer research primarily in sub-Saharan Africa, focused on lymphoid and HIV-associated malignancies. I also oversaw a largely NIH-supported portfolio that sought to address many of the most common cancers in our environment. In Malawi, our program focused on identifying opportunities to extensively study cancers that occur rarely in the United States, to uncover fundamental biologic insights about why cancer occurs, and to think about new ways to prevent, diagnose, and treat cancer that could benefit patients worldwide if successful.
As the only certified medical oncologist in a country of approximately 18 million people, I also tried to remain intensely mindful that our cancer research activities in Malawi must deliver something of value to the Malawian people, and that partnerships must benefit all partners. For us, this obligation required that we provide career development opportunities for young Malawian investigators, help build and improve local capacity for cancer control, and conduct studies that directly contribute to local understanding of cancer and the care of individual patients. We achieved this by assembling a multidisciplinary research group from across the clinical, population, and basic sciences, comprised of senior and junior U.S. and Malawian scientists, who worked collaboratively to address local priorities with many regional and international partners.
Based on these experiences, I was honored to serve as an external advisor to the NCI Director as Co-Chair of the NCI Advisory Board Ad Hoc Global Health Working Group in 2018. I also served as Associate Chair of the AIDS Malignancy Consortium (AMC) for African International Sites, which is the first NCI-sponsored cooperative clinical trials group conducting multicenter interventional studies for cancer treatment and prevention in sub-Saharan Africa. I have also participated in various advisory and review panels at NIH and other institutions related to global cancer and have been privileged to receive invitations to speak about global oncology at various international venues.
Having now moved with my family back to the U.S., I’m thrilled to be at NCI leading such a talented and dedicated team and look forward to learning more about their efforts to facilitate coordination of NCI’s international research collaborations and foster partnerships in the global health community. We believe this is a truly pivotal moment in the Center’s history. CGH was established in 2011, under the direction of former NCI Director Dr. Harold Varmus to initiate cooperative activities and programs to increase capacity in cancer research worldwide. Currently, global oncology is a tremendously exciting field, with rapidly accumulating interest and investment domestically and internationally from NCI, cancer centers, professional societies, and industry. We believe these efforts will yield important discoveries and accelerate progress that benefits patients worldwide.
To date, CGH has served an essential role in health diplomacy, evidence dissemination, and policy response in support of the NCI mission, and is poised to expand its partnerships and research initiatives. Over the past decade, the Center has advanced programs that strengthen NCI’s existing global research portfolio and continues to contribute resources to strengthen existing international research collaborations and biomedical partnerships that advance NCI scientific priorities. The Center has also been instrumental in working with NIH and NCI colleagues to identify new opportunities and develop new collaborations in cancer research with international partners. For example, as a former Fogarty International Center (FIC) grantee, I look forward to developing and leveraging our strong relationship with Fogarty, along with other NIH and federal partners.
At the December NCI National Cancer Advisory Board meeting, members lent their full support to global oncology, citing findings from a CGH and ASCO co-authored study, published in the Journal of Global Oncology, Landscape of global oncology research and training at NCI-Designated Cancer Centers (NDCC): Results of the 2018-2019 Global Oncology Survey. I believe such endorsements speak to a broad consensus within the cancer community that the emerging global oncology field can advance scientific knowledge, build capacity to address cancer as a critical global health issue, and become a highly sought career trajectory in the U.S. and internationally, that attracts some of the most talented young cancer investigators in the world.
As noted in the report cited above, an important upcoming opportunity for NDCC and related organizations to increase collaboration efforts is the 8th Annual Symposium on Global Cancer Research. At this scientific satellite meeting of the 11th Consortium of Universities for Global Health Conference, participants will discuss trends, gaps, and potential collaborations in global cancer research and control.
In the coming weeks and months, I look forward to discussing challenges and opportunities with other NCI colleagues and stakeholders. As I begin, I deeply appreciate the opportunity to build on the legacy from the first CGH Director, Dr. Ted Trimble. Also, I am sincerely grateful to CGH Interim Director Dr. Bob Croyle for his dedication and support during my first days at the Center and his help in ensuring a seamless transition, along with other CGH staff and NCI leadership. The Center looks forward to their continued contributions.