Norman E. “Ned” Sharpless, MD, is departing shortly after the launch of Cancer Moonshot 2.0, an initiative that aims to reduce the cancer death rate by at least half over the next 25 years while improving the experience for all those affected by cancer.
Norman E. “Ned” Sharpless, MD, announced today that he will step down as director of the National Cancer Institute (NCI), part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), according to a statement.
Sharpless has held the position since October 2017. He briefly served as acting FDA commissioner for 7 months in 2019, then returned to his position as director. He will stay at NCI through April 29, when NCI Principal Deputy Director Douglas R. Lowy, MD, will become acting director.
“Working at the National Cancer Institute has been the highlight of my career, and I am honored to have had the chance to serve my country in this role, alongside so many talented scientists and administrators,” Sharpless said. “I leave this job knowing that the talent and passion present at NCI, across the Biden-Harris Administration and throughout the cancer research community will continue to fuel tremendous progress for people with cancer in the years ahead.”
Sharpless, 55, told The Washington Post that he had mixed feelings about leaving. However, he said that the COVID-19 pandemic had been an exhausting time to serve, and he wanted to return to Chapel Hill, North Carolina, where his wife is an endocrinologist. He told The Post that his time in government should be measured “in dog years.”
He departs shortly after the launch of Cancer Moonshot 2.0, an initiative that aims to reduce the cancer death rate by at least half over the next 25 years while improving the experience for all those affected by cancer. This will require a cross-government approach to prevent, diagnose, and treat cancer.
The COVID-19 pandemic will make this challenging, as evidence already shows a decline in cancer screening, and NCI has already predicted later-stage cancer diagnoses for several years. NCI launched a multiyear study to study the effects of COVID-19 on patients with cancer, and Sharpless warned early on that the pandemic could halt a generation of progress in cancer mortality gains.
Sharpless, however, sees government responding to the need for greater collaboration. “During my time in the federal government, I have been inspired by the ways that researchers, caregivers, advocates, and survivors have broken down silos to collaborate and embrace new ways of working together to solve some of the toughest problems in cancer,” he said in the statement. “The community stands ready to meet the President’s call to end cancer as we know it.”
Within NIH, Sharpless is credited with work on health equity and data science, including the Childhood Cancer Data Initiative. He advocated for policies to ensure continued support for investigator-initiated research in cancer and diversity in the cancer research workforce. In 2020, authorized creation of NCI’s Equity and Inclusion Program.
“Dr Sharpless’ ability to manage complex problems has been invaluable to several NIH initiatives, including the agency’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic and improving equity and inclusion, and in his role as chair of the NIH Clinical Center Governing Board,” said Acting NIH Director Lawrence A. Tabak, DDS, PhD. “Dr Sharpless’ absence will surely be felt by his colleagues at NCI and beyond.”