President Joe Biden on Nov. 17 announced that he was appointing W. Kimryn Rathmell, M.D., Ph.D., currently physician-in-chief and chair of the Department of Medicine at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, to the position of Director of the National Cancer Institute. Dr. Rathmell is a practicing oncologist and a nationally recognized expert in kidney cancer.
The White House’s press release on the announcement, posted to its website, began thus: “Today, President Joe Biden announced his intent to appoint Dr. W. Kimryn Rathmell as the 17th Director of the National Cancer Institute (NCI), the federal government’s principal agency for cancer research and training and the largest funder of cancer research in the world. Dr. W. Kimryn Rathmell is an accomplished physician-scientist and internationally recognized cancer expert who is well suited to lead the NCI during this critical time to achieve the goals the President set for the Biden Cancer Moonshot as part of his Unity Agenda.”
And it quoted President Biden as stating that “Dr. Rathmell is the talented and visionary leader the National Cancer Institute needs to drive us toward ending cancer as we know it. Throughout her career, she has been committed to advancing discovery through scientific research, maintaining a steadfast commitment to caring for her patients, and demonstrating leadership in preparing the next generation of researchers. She embodies the promise of the Biden Cancer Moonshot and has spent her career driving toward the goals Jill and I set for the initiative, to improve outcomes and boost support for those facing a cancer diagnosis. The National Cancer Institute is central to the success of the Cancer Moonshot and Dr. Rathmell will lead the agency towards new ways to prevent, detect, and treat cancer and to ensure we reach more Americans with the tools we have to save and extend lives.”
The press release went on to note that “W. Kimryn Rathmell, M.D., Ph.D., is a physician-scientist, oncologist, and educator who currently leads the Vanderbilt University Medical Center as Physician-in-Chief and Chair of the Department of Medicine. An accomplished physician-scientist and internationally recognized expert in kidney cancer, Dr. Rathmell’s research focuses on the underlying drivers of kidney cancers by using genetic, molecular, and cell biology to develop robust approaches to improve patient outcomes. Dr. Rathmell has held several national leadership roles as part of the National Institute of Health (NIH) Cancer Genome Atlas, a landmark program to catalogue the genetic mutations of cancers, serves on the National Cancer Institute’s Board of Scientific Advisors, as well as part of the Department of Defense Kidney Cancer Research Program. Dr. Rathmell’s dedication to her patients and to scientific discovery is held in high regard by her peers and she has received national recognition for her work – for example, she was elected President of the American Society of Clinical Investigation, Secretary-Treasury of the American Society for Clinical Oncology, was inducted into the Association of American Physicians, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the National Academy of Medicine, and won the 2021 American Association for Cancer Research Team Science Award. She founded a non-profit organization in support of patients with a rare cancer seen primarily in African-American patients with sickle cell trait.”
The press release went on to say that, “A Nebraska native, Dr. Rathmell graduated from the University of Northern Iowa with degrees in biology and chemistry. She received her Ph.D. in Biophysics and her M.D. from Stanford University, after which she served as an internal medicine resident, Fellow in Medical Oncology, and postdoctoral researcher at the University of Pennsylvania. She completed her post-doctoral training at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and later earned her Masters of Management in Healthcare at Vanderbilt University’s Owen Graduate School of Management.”
Following the White House announcement, the Department of Health and Human Services released the following statement from Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra: “Cancer touches every American in some way, and is a leading cause of death in America. The President and First Lady reignited the Biden Cancer Moonshot to dramatically accelerate progress in the fight against cancer and mobilize a national effort to end cancer as we know it. Dr. Rathmell is an extraordinary physician-scientist with decades of experience helping to advance research and drive innovation to improve care for patients. She will be a visionary leader of NCI and I look forward to working with her to help prevent, detect, and treat cancer to make sure Americans are living longer, healthier lives.”
Reporting on Friday in the Washington Post, Dan Diamond wrote that “She succeeds Monica M. Bertagnolli, whom the Senate last week confirmed as director of the National Institutes of Health. In an interview, Bertagnolli said she believes that Rathmell is well-positioned to run the $7.3 billion cancer institute, the largest of the 27 institutes and centers that constitute NIH. As a board member, Rathmell helped develop and roll out the cancer institute’s April 2023 national cancer plan, which detailed eight goals to prevent cancer and save lives, Bertagnolli said. ‘Now, she will be the one leading its execution as she steps into this job,’ the NIH director added.”
Further, Diamond wrote, “Several experts noted that the National Cancer Institute has largely escaped the political battles that have ensnared NIH, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other public health agencies following the coronavirus pandemic, as Republicans have alleged that federal health leaders failed to appropriately respond to the virus and have opened multiple investigations into the agencies’ operations.” And he quoted Karen E. Knudsen, CEO of the American Cancer Society, as stating that “We’ve not seen that [politicization] come across in the cancer world yet. It’s just too important.”
Meanwhile, The Hill’s Nathaniel Weixel wrote on Friday that “Cancer research advocates also applauded the move, noting the importance of developing new treatments while also improving access to them. Rathmell ‘is a voice of wisdom on how to align scientific priorities to solve for the most pressing challenges in cancer prevention, detection, and cure,’” he quoted Karen Knudsen as stating. “Dr. Rathmell has lived experiences as a highly impactful translational scientist and cancer center leader, which will serve as a strong foundation for the NCI and the whole of government approach toward ending cancer as we know it,” Knudsen told him.
Weixel noted that “Rathmell is an oncologist and kidney cancer expert who leads the Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, Tenn. As leader of the NCI, Rathmell will be instrumental in helping the White House achieve the goals of President Biden’s ‘cancer moonshot.’ Biden last year pitched the moonshot initiative as a bipartisan pursuit with the goals of cutting cancer deaths in half in the next 25 years and improving the experience of those living with and surviving cancer,” he added.
Unlike the position of Director of the National Institutes of Health, which requires Senate confirmation for the nominee, the President does not need Senate confirmation to appoint the Director of the National Cancer Institute.