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Former Princeton Karate club member confirmed as NIH director

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(Left) Dr. Monica Bertagnolli '81; (Right) Dr. Monica Bertagnolli as an undergraduate karate chopping a wooden board on Poe field.


Ira Starr / The Daily Princetonian '81; "Monica M. Bertagnolli, M.D., Director, National Institutes of Health" / CC BY-N 2.0.

Dr. Monica Bertagnolli ’81 was confirmed on Nov. 9 as director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the nation’s foremost medical research agency and largest public funder of biomedical research in the world. Transitioning from her role as the 16th director of the National Cancer Institute (NCI), Bertagnolli is now the highest ranking Princeton graduate in the Biden administration.

Bertagnolli is the first surgeon and second woman to hold the position, which has been vacant since Dr. Francis S. Collins stepped down nearly two years ago, after more than 12 years in the role. 

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In an email to The Daily Princetonian, Bertagnolli called the new role a “tremendous honor.”

“Coming to Princeton widened my horizons tremendously,” Bertagnolli wrote in an email to the ‘Prince.’  

Remembering the impact of several professors from her time at the University, Bertagnolli recalled being taught “applications of statistics I have used throughout my career in medicine” and topics “highly relevant to current priorities at NIH.”

As an undergraduate, Bertagnolli was a Bachelors of Science in Engineering student, creating an independent study to pursue a concentration in biochemical engineering. She was also a member of the Karate Club, as pictured in the ‘Prince.’

Bertagnolli was nominated by President Biden and confirmed by the U.S. Senate on Tuesday, Nov. 7 with bipartisan support and a vote 62 to 36. 34 Republicans, including Ted Cruz ’92 (R-TX), voted against her appointment, while 46 Democrats voted in favor. 

Bertagnolli’s appointment was held up since President Biden announced her nomination in May by Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, the chairman of the Senate health committee. In a statement released in October, Sanders wrote Bertagnolli “has not convinced me that she is prepared to take on the greed and power of the drug companies and health care industry and fight for the transformative changes the NIH needs at this critical moment.”

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Sanders finally scheduled a hearing for Bertagnolli after the Department of Health and Human Services agreed to a contract with Regeneron to develop a new monoclonal antibody treatment for COVID-19 that stipulates that the list price of the drug must be equal to or lower than the price in other major countries.

Bertagnolli previously served as the 16th director of the National Cancer Institute (NCI). A month after becoming the director of NCI Bertagnolli was diagnosed with early-stage breast cancer after a routine mammogram in Boston. She expects to fully recover.

Per the NIH announcement, Bertagnolli said, “As a physician-scientist for more than 30 years, I have seen the transformative power of NIH research to produce results that save lives, including my own treatment for breast cancer. As NIH director, I look forward to ensuring that NIH continues to be the steward of our nation’s medical research while engaging all people and communities in the research effort that includes informing medical practice that drives equitable access to health care for all.” 

According to the NIH announcement, Bertagnolli’s priorities for her role include increasing the diversity of participants in clinical trials and restoring trust in science by making it accessible to all communities. She also hopes to strengthen collaboration between the 27 NIH institutes and centers by emphasizing commonalities across all diseases.

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After her graduation 1981, Bertagnolli, who grew up on a cattle ranch in Wyoming, received a Doctor of Medicine degree from the University of Utah before completing her surgical residency at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. 

As a cancer surgeon for more than 35 years, Bertagnolli specializes in treating gastrointestinal cancers and sarcomas, which are rare cancers that develop in the bones and soft tissues. Since 2000, she has been a surgeon at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and the Gastrointestinal Cancer Treatment and Sarcoma Centers at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, where she became the first female Chief of Surgical Oncology in 2007. She also served as the Richard E. Wilson Professor of Surgery at Harvard Medical School.

While practicing, Bertagnolli’s clinical focus was the treatment of patients with germline APC gene mutations, which cause a condition called Familial Adenomatous Polyposis that increases the risk for colon and rectal cancers.

Bertagnolli has conducted extensive research on tumor biology, including the gene mutation that contributes to gastrointestinal cancer development and how inflammation causes cancer. She was a past president and chair of the Board of Directors of the American Society of Clinical Oncology and served as the President of the Alliance Foundation and Chief Executive Officer of Alliance Foundation Trials LLC, which conducts international cancer clinical trials. She was elected as a Fellow of the National Academy of Medicine in 2021.

In October 2022, Bertagnolli became the first female NCI director, where she initiated efforts to expand and modernize cancer clinical trials. Part of her efforts included increasing responsible access and sharing of cancer clinical trial data and promoting the inclusion of rural communities in clinical studies. 

While she was director, NCI released the National Cancer Plan which provides a framework for the government, researchers, and the community to collaborate to prevent cancer, reduce deaths from cancer, and improve quality of life for cancer patients.

“We have so many opportunities before us today — better technology and diagnostics, advanced analytics, new therapeutic approaches, and a drive to overcome health challenges for all people, not just those with ready access to resources,” she wrote to the ‘Prince.’ “I look forward to turning these opportunities into better health and well-being by enabling the outstanding work of the dedicated and talented team at NIH.”

Hannah Gabelnick is a News contributor for the ‘Prince.’

Please send corrections to corrections[at]dailyprincetonian.com.

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