After 4 ½ years on the job, NCI Director Norman “Ned” Sharpless, MD, announced that he will step down at the end of April. Douglas Lowy, MD, the institute’s principal deputy director, will take the job on an interim basis until a successor is found.

Norman “Ned” Sharpless, MD, will step down as director of the NCI, ending his 4 ½-year tenure on April 29. Douglas Lowy, MD, the NCI’s principal deputy director, will fill the role until a successor is named.


Norman “Ned” Sharpless, MD (NCI)

During his tenure, which began in October 2017, Sharpless oversaw the development of critical programs, such as the Childhood Cancer Data Initiative and the NCI’s Experimental Therapeutics Program. He pushed to boost support for investigator-initiated research and fought for equity in patient care. He also advocated for diversity and inclusion in the cancer research workforce and oversaw the creation of the NCI’s Equity and Inclusion Program in 2020.

“Dr. Sharpless was a huge supporter of research into mitigating cancer disparities and decreasing inequities in cancer research and care,” says John Carpten, PhD, of the University of Southern California (USC) Keck School of Medicine in Los Angeles. Sharpless’s contributions, he adds, “provided the type of support that is needed from the leadership to advance in these areas.”

And “administratively, the most important thing he’s done is turn around a dire research project grant pool,” says Shelton Earp, MD, director of the University of North Carolina’s Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center in Chapel Hill. “He’s worked very well internally and with Congress to help increase the pool.”

During 2019, Sharpless served as the FDA’s acting commissioner for 7 months. Soon after Sharpless returned to the NCI in November 2019, COVID-19 hit.

The pandemic upended the cancer community: Many labs pivoted to COVID-19 research, clinical trials were halted, routine cancer screenings were canceled, and critical treatments were delayed. Noting early on that the pandemic could lead to 10,000 additional cancer deaths, Sharpless held emergency meetings to discuss the NCI’s response.

Elizabeth Jaffee, MD, deputy director of The Sidney Kimmel Comprehensive Cancer Center at Johns Hopkins University, notes that Sharpless was “thoughtful about what the NCI could do to help researchers, cancer patients, survivors, and the community,” adding that “he was very proactive.”

Sharpless tackled the challenges, calling for the adoption of telemedicine and modification of protocols to allow remote clinical trials. “He did a lot to ensure those trials came back up as soon as possible and to make sure patients were being managed well through the cooperative groups,” adds Anna Barker, PhD, chief strategy officer at the Ellison Institute for Transformative Medicine at USC.

Under Sharpless’s guidance, the NCI has “come out stronger on the other side” of the pandemic, says Earp.

Yet some researchers have voiced concerns about the effect the pandemic will have in the next few years. “COVID isn’t over,” notes Jaffee. “We have not really felt all of the repercussions.”

Specifically, Carpten says that the reduction in screening during the pandemic will likely have consequences “3 to 5 years from now.” He adds: “It’s our hope that the next NCI director will keep a sharp eye on cancer rates.”

That’s just one challenge facing Sharpless’s successor. Money is another. For example, President Joe Biden’s fiscal year 2023 budget calls for cutting $199 million from the NCI’s budget, which could slow research momentum.

“I think that although we have increased the top line for the NCI over the last few years, we still are really underfunding—especially individual investigators—and we’ve got to fix this somehow. We’re setting our sights on a 15% pay line, which is pretty modest,” comments Barker.

“Resources have always been an issue and they always will be,” she comments, “but … when we are on the cusp of really providing a foundation for precision oncology … now is the time to step up and put a real investment into cancer.”

Indeed, “the balancing of Moonshot, ARPA-H [Advanced Research Projects Agency for Health], and continued pressure on the discovery budget will probably be the biggest problem the next NCI director has,” says Earp. –Natalie DiDomenico