Biden picks cancer surgeon to run NIH

If confirmed by the Senate, Bertagnolli would take control of a sprawling agency charged with investigating a range of diseases and finding new treatments. The NIH has traditionally enjoyed bipartisan support in Congress, with a budget that now exceeds $45 billion.

But the role would also thrust her into the center of a prolonged fight over the origins of the coronavirus pandemic. House Republicans have prioritized investigating the NIH’s funding of research projects, in search of evidence that some of its grants may have inadvertently triggered Covid’s spread.

The NIH has not had a permanent director since December 2021, when Francis Collins stepped down after more than a decade atop the agency. Lawrence Tabak, the NIH’s longtime principal deputy director, has since served as acting director.

The White House had struggled for months to settle on a nominee, hampered by difficulties attracting top talent from more lucrative private sector jobs and concerns among potential candidates that their time in the role may come to an end along with the president’s first term.

President Joe Biden had also pushed hard for the NIH nominee to be an oncologist, the people familiar with the matter said. Biden launched the Cancer Moonshot during the Obama administration, and maintains a deep interest in cancer research in part due to the death of his son, Beau, from brain cancer in 2015.

Bertagnolli, who previously did stints at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, had won internal praise during her short time at the NCI.

She also made headlines shortly after taking the job for disclosing her own early-stage breast cancer diagnosis following a routine mammogram. She wrote at the time that “it’s one thing to know about cancer as a physician, but it is another to experience it firsthand as a patient as well. To anyone with cancer today: I am truly in this together with you.”

If confirmed, Bertagnolli would be the second woman to head the NIH.