Sharpless Outlines His Plans for NCI During Spring Town Hall

By Samuel Lopez, staff writer; photos by Marie Haughey and Samuel Lopez, staff writers
NCI at Frederick's Building 549 auditorium watching the town hall

Kristin Komschlies, Ph.D., (at microphone) asks Sharpless a question on behalf of the audience at NCI at Frederick’s Building 549.

At the National Cancer Institute (NCI) Spring Town Hall, new director Norman E. “Ned” Sharpless, M.D., summarized his goals for NCI’s role in cancer research. The event, which was held at NCI Shady Grove and livestreamed to eight other major NCI locations, was Sharpless’ first town hall since his six-month “listening and learning tour” concluded.

Sharpless is a self-described outsider to NCI who hasn’t worked for the National Institutes of Health (NIH) since 1990. However, he said his tour—composed of extensive NCI-related reading as well as meetings with scientists, students, industry partners, current and former federal employees, patients, and patients’ families and advocates—was “very valuable” and helped him to better understand NCI and its mission.

“This place is … awesome,” he said. “There’s this shared sense of mission … there’s this real love and respect and dedication of NCI.”

Four Key Areas of Focus for NCI

Sharpless delineated several current obstacles to global cancer research efforts, emphasizing that cancer is not one disease but is in fact hundreds or thousands of distinct infirmities. That diversity complicates both research and treatment approaches, which are even further complicated by the uniqueness of each patient.

While scientists widely recognize these issues, Sharpless said that their far-reaching implications haven’t been fully absorbed. He added that NCI must research all cancers, not just the most promising ones, and must undertake innovative approaches to study and treat the most difficult ones.

To help address these challenges, Sharpless identified four “areas of key focus” in which NCI can expand during his tenure: workforce training and development, an unabashed dedication to basic science pursuits, use and leveraging of “big data,” and modernization of clinical trials.

“These are areas where a laser focus now can really move progress because of where we are today in terms of the developing science and technology,” he said.

According to Sharpless, NCI is responsible for ensuring its employees are well-equipped to meet the demands of future research. As part of this initiative, he hopes to cultivate vital research skills, pursue intellectual and cultural diversity among employees, and expand opportunities for researchers. NCI will also increase funding grants for young investigators by 25 percent, which Sharpless announced at the 2018 American Association for Cancer Research (AACR) meeting the following Monday.

Sharpless also stressed the importance of basic science, which continues to reveal new information about long-studied topics.

“NCI must continue to strongly support investigator-initiated basic science, and [it] will do that as long as I’m director,” he said.

He later specified at the AACR meeting that NCI will do so by reducing the paperwork burden for basic science principal investigators; providing scientific infrastructure, like the Frederick National Laboratory’s National Cryo-EM Facility; and increasing the research project grants pool by $100 million.

Sharpless then shared his plan for NCI to lead big data aggregation and conversion into formats that are usable for cancer research. NCI will attempt to set national standards for sharing and collecting big data; identify necessary elements for cancer data sets; and help to develop, share, and analyze those data sets.

“It is my hope that, by doing the heavy lifting of data collection, standardization, harmonization, and analysis, we can make better sense of cancer’s complex puzzles and, ultimately, deliver better ways of beating cancer’s challenges,” he said.

Last, Sharpless said that NCI must deal with the many problems currently facing clinical trials, including high costs, lack of visibility to patients, and lack of clarity and understandability. To overcome these issues, he believes the organization must develop new trial designs—such as the NCI Molecular Analysis for Therapy Choice trial—that value patients and use innovative ideas.

Listening and Learning Will Continue

Sharpless also spoke about his intent to continue listening and learning indefinitely and his desire to solve issues within the organization so it can better help cancer patients. He then invited all NCI staff to point out areas for improvement and boldly share their news with him.

“If there are things we can do to improve NCI, you need to let me know,” he said. “The only consequence of ‘complaining’ to me about a problem that’s material to NCI is that I will try to act to make the problem better to the extent possible.”

Sharpless Says NCI is Complex, Powerful

After concluding his remarks, Sharpless participated in a 30-minute question-and-answer session with the audience, including viewers at the eight satellite locations. Senior leaders at each location asked questions on behalf of their audiences.

At NCI at Frederick’s Building 549, Kristin Komschlies, Ph.D., acting director, Office of Scientific Operations, asked if NCI leadership plans to increase interactions between NCI and industry. Sharpless replied that there is a willingness to do so and that he believes in public–private partnerships.

“[Pharmaceutical industries] have things we need … [like] expertise and data that can be very helpful,” he added. “I would say we’re receptive to further initiatives, but each one has to be evaluated to make sure it’s worthwhile.”

Later, Ethan Dmitrovsky, M.D., laboratory director of the Frederick National Laboratory and moderator for viewers at the Advanced Technology Research Facility, asked about NCI’s plans to invest in the postdoctoral community. According to Sharpless, NCI is making several changes to awards and grants for postdocs, including moving toward a fellowship model that is expected to increase their chances for success.

Dmitrovsky also asked Sharpless to describe his main message for the extramural community now that his initial listening and learning tour had ended.

“The NCI is very complex, and a lot of the things that the NCI does are for a very good reason, although they seem a little confusing to the outsider,” Sharpless replied. “The NCI is really good at what it does, [but] … there are no simple solutions, there are no snap fixes.”

Other question-and-answer topics included the public image of NCI’s intramural research program, NCI’s role in addressing the opioid crisis, and Sharpless’ other areas of focus outside of his four major ones.

NIH employees, contractors, and fellows can watch a recording of the event on the NIH Videocasting and Podcasting site.

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