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Trump Cancer Research Chief Retains Interim Role as Others Leave

Jan. 26, 2021, 6:51 PM

The Biden administration has held over the National Cancer Institute Director Ned Sharpless, whom President Donald Trump installed in 2017.

Sharpless also served as acting FDA commissioner for about six months before Trump nominated Steve Hahn to lead the agency. Hahn stepped down from that role, as expected, on Jan. 20.

Sharpless is unique among Trump’s top medical officials in retaining his spot in the new administration, even in an interim capacity. The NCI confirmed to Bloomberg Law he has not been asked to step down, in contrast to President Joe Biden’s request to Jerome Adams, Trump’s surgeon general, to leave his post on Jan. 20.

It’s unclear whether Sharpless will retain his position temporarily as the new White House fills its appointments or if he will be permanently reappointed like Francis S. Collins, the director of the National Institutes of Health.

“Dr. Sharpless continues to serve as the Director of the National Cancer Institute. The Biden Administration is aggressively working to bring staff and leadership onboard,” the NCI said in a statement.

Sharpless fits the profile for a Biden appointee on cancer, although there’s been no indication from Collins or the White House on whether he’s in the running for the permanent job.

Sharpless is a respected physician and cancer researcher who ran one of the NCI’s designated comprehensive cancer centers and founded two biotech startups before being tapped to lead the NIH’s largest institute. He has addressed racial inequalities in clinical trials linked to cancer research and care and is an advocate of building the cancer research workforce.

But he also faced criticism from Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) on how the Food and Drug Administration handled e-cigarettes.

While most Trump-era health officials have vacated their posts, Biden asked Collins to stay on—Collins’ third administration—in part because of the president wants to maintain consistent leadership in biomedical research, Collins said in an interview about his own reappointment.

Cancer research is a top priority for Biden. As vice president under President Barack Obama, Biden spent his last year in office leading a “moonshot” effort that aimed to double progress in cancer research. Biden carried that work with him after the Obama administration with the Biden Cancer Initiative.

The NCI director’s job requires a presidential appointment, but it doesn’t need Senate confirmation. It is the only one of the 27 research institutes and centers that needs a presidential appointment.

Sharpless was the acting commissioner of the FDA from April to November 2019, following the departure of Scott Gottlieb. He was once considered a front-runner for the permanent FDA role under Trump, but that position ultimately went to another cancer researcher in Hahn, then the chief medical executive at the MD Anderson Cancer Center.

To contact the reporter on this story: Jeannie Baumann in Washington at

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Fawn Johnson at