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Assuming the Role of NCI Director: Working to Accelerate Progress

November 2, 2017, by Norman E. Sharpless, M.D.

NCI Director Dr. Norman E. Sharpless

Credit: National Institutes of Health

I’m not sure anything can prepare a person to become director of the National Cancer Institute, but I can honestly say that I am humbled to have been appointed to this position and am excited to have this unique opportunity.

As many of you may know, I come to NCI from the University of North Carolina Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center, where I had the privilege to serve as director for the last 3 1/2 years.

I’ve also spent the past 2 decades caring for patients with leukemia and running a 20-person lab that employed murine genetics to examine the intersection of cancer and aging. During this time, I’ve also been an entrepreneur, starting companies focused on developing new cancer therapies and diagnostics.

These experiences have offered a window into what it takes to run an important organization like NCI.

I’m particularly excited to step into this role at such a critical juncture in the history of cancer research. Important new discoveries about the biology of cancer are being made at a staggering pace. And we have never seen a period during which so many promising new therapies have become available that are providing meaningful benefits to patients.

And, yet, it’s plain that there is much more to do.

Like previous NCI directors, my hope is that by making smart investments, encouraging innovation, and building and following proven models of success, we can make important and meaningful improvements in many different areas of need.

Over the coming weeks and months, I will continue learning the ins and outs of NCI as an organization and institution. I also plan to meet and talk with the cancer community: clinicians, leaders of oncology professional societies and advocacy organizations, chairs of the NCI advisory boards, and industry leaders, to name just a few.

I want to hear directly from them about what they view as their priorities, their challenges, and what NCI can do to accelerate progress.

Thanks to Doug Lowy’s steady and professional leadership as NCI acting director over the past 2 years, NCI has an excellent foundation of progress on which to build. The entire cancer community owes Doug a huge debt of gratitude for his tremendous work as acting director, including his tireless work—along with many other NCI staff—on Cancer Moonshot™-related activities.

I’d like to thank Doug for agreeing to continue in a senior leadership role as NCI deputy director. I will undoubtedly benefit from his experience and knowledge in the coming months.

To supplement my direct outreach to our many stakeholders, my plan is to use this forum on Cancer Currents to communicate regularly with the cancer community. This will allow me to elaborate on my priorities for NCI, as well as discuss the launch of noteworthy programs, initiatives, and other events and activities that are shaping the cancer research landscape and affecting patient care.

I’ve only been on the job as NCI director for a short time, but already I’m beginning to get a much better appreciation for the breadth and magnitude of NCI’s role as leader of the National Cancer Program.

Being named NCI director is not something I ever anticipated happening in my career. However, I plan to take full advantage of this opportunity—to spur progress, encourage entrepreneurship and innovation, and continue NCI’s long tradition of research excellence and commitment to improving people’s lives.

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