Sharpless Looks Back at His First Year as NCI Director at Fall Town Hall

By Marie White, staff writer; images by Samuel Lopez, staff writer
Employees watch the telecast in the Building 549 auditorium.

Employees watch the telecast in the Building 549 auditorium.

Employees crowded into the Building 549 auditorium as Norman E. Sharpless, M.D., took the podium at Shady Grove, addressing NCI and contractor employees watching live and via telecast viewings.   

“What a difference a year makes,” he began, reflecting on how he was sworn in on the same day exactly one year ago.

“Since then,” he said, “I’ve had a lot to learn, and I want to thank everyone for tutoring me on NCI’s work and its process. This is a thrilling place to work, and one of the things that sets it apart is the enthusiasm of the people who work here.”

Sharpless then summarized some of the progress made in cancer research during 2018, noting:

  • The Annual Report to the Nation revealed a decline in mortality and morbidity rates in certain cancers over time;
  • The increase of funds in the federal budget for NCI, which includes full funding for the Cancer Moonshot program this year;
  • The bipartisan support from both Congress and the public for NCI’s mission (those in Congress recognize that “investment in cancer research has been a good use of federal funds”);
  • The progress made in immunotherapy under Dr. Steven Rosenberg;
  • The Food and Drug Administration’s approval of Dr. Ira Pastan’s drug for hairy cell leukemia, moxetumomab;
  • A study linking low-dose radiation exposure to leukemia, especially in children.

One of the most prominent highlights was the progress made in the TAILORx study, which genotyped women with cancer to determine whether they would benefit from chemotherapy. It showed positive results and helped reduce the toxic effects in patients as well as patient and Medicare costs. Sharpless said that it represents the type of work that the NCI is uniquely qualified to do.

Looking Ahead

After reviewing the past year, Sharpless revisited the “Key Focus Areas” he outlined at his Spring Town Hall and focused on the challenges and opportunities that await NCI in the days ahead.  

Workforce Development and Training: NCI has begun issuing R37s in addition to R01s. An R37 is a seven-year grant, as opposed to the R01, which is a five-year grant. The R37s are being aimed at young scientists and newly tenured investigators to help them get a foothold in the industry.

Basic Science: NCI has been making a stronger effort to provide support through the Research Project Grant pool, allowing scientists to come up with novel, unique ideas for research.

Big Data: NCI will continue to push for data standardization and aggregation. Big data is an area in which NCI’s trusted status allows it to lead the rest of the research community.

Clinical Trials: Trials have become more difficult, largely due to a better understanding of the complexity of cancer. However, NCI is committed to facilitating better trials, as evidenced by the promising TAILORx study.

Sharpless touched on a few other initiatives, noting that staff recruitment remains a major challenge—but also an opportunity, as NCI seeks to train the next generation of scientists. NCI also has four prominent positions open, and filling them has been difficult.

He also looked ahead to the Cancer Moonshot funding, which drops to approximately $200 million in fiscal year 2020 through fiscal year 2023, then stops altogether.

Lastly, Sharpless confirmed the need to change the culture in science and end sexual harassment. The National Institutes of Health are updating their policy, putting forth new training and guidelines, and launching a new “Civil Program” to handle harassment complaints and ensure equitable treatment for all employees. These changes will apply to and help staff at NCI and the other institutes within the National Institutes of Health.

For those who missed the Town Hall, the videocast is still available here.