Biden taps Vanderbilt physician-scientist to head NCI

It took nearly 2 years for President Joe Biden to find and the Senate to approve the new director of the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH), Monica Bertagnolli, who took her post last week. But Biden has moved to fill the newly vacant top job at NIH’s largest institute, the National Cancer Institute (NCI), in a tiny fraction of that time .

Today, Biden announced that Vanderbilt University Medical Center physician-scientist Kimryn Rathmell will be NCI’s 17th director. Rathmell will replace Bertagnolli, who served just over 1 year in the position before becoming NIH director. When Rathmell takes her position in December, she will be only the second woman to lead the $7.3 billion institute in its 86-year history.

In a statement announcing Rathmell’s nomination, Biden called her a “talented and visionary leader” who “embodies the promise of the Biden Cancer Moonshot,” his effort to cut the U.S. cancer death rate by 50% by 2047. “I look forward to working with her to help prevent, detect, and treat cancer to make sure Americans are living longer, healthier lives.” In a separate statement, Bertagnolli described Rathmell as “an ideal candidate to lead NIH’s efforts to end cancer as we know it.”

Currently the chair of medicine at Vanderbilt, Rathmell is an expert on kidney cancer whose work has focused on the basic biology of these tumors, particularly how they thrive even when their own growth limits their supply of oxygen from blood vessels. She has been a leader of the Cancer Genome Atlas, a large NCI effort to sequence tumors, and has overseen graduate training and mentorship programs. She is also a current member of NCI’s Board of Scientific Advisors (BSA), which helps guide the agency’s research.

Ned Sharpless, who stepped down as NCI director in April 2022, said Rathmell is an old friend from when both were at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He called Rathmell “a talented scientist and compassionate physician and a really strong executive,” adding, “She’s a great choice” to implement the moonshot.

Johns Hopkins University cancer researcher Elizabeth Jaffee adds that Rathmell is “the perfect next leader of the NCI” at a time when “the scientific discoveries over the past 5 years are ripe” for new cancer treatments.

Cancer research advocacy groups, including the American Cancer Society and the basic science-focused American Association for Cancer Research (AACR), have put out statements applauding the nomination. AACR President Philip Greenberg praised Rathmell’s “enthusiasm for innovative scientific methods and ideas, as well as her appreciation for the value and importance of basic research to advancing translational discoveries.”