String of NIH departures continues as Ned Sharpless, head of the National Cancer Institute, steps down

Ned Sharpless, M.D., head of the National Cancer Institute, is stepping down at the end of the month, the latest in a string of departures from the National Institutes of Health over the last four months, according to an announcement late Monday. 

Ned Sharpless
Ned Sharpless (NCI)

Sharpless’ departure marks the end of more than four years at the helm, a stint that was briefly interrupted in 2019 while he served as acting head of the FDA for seven months. Over the course of his tenure, Sharpless advocated for incorporating more data into cancer research, including the development of the Childhood Cancer Data Initiative, and diversity in cancer research. After the nationwide protests over police brutality and racial inequity in 2020, Sharpless helped establish NCI’s Equity and Inclusion Program. 

Sharpless' move is the latest in a string of high-profile departures and retirements from the nation’s leading medical research agency. The agency’s head, Francis Collins, M.D., Ph.D., retired at the end of 2021 after a 12-year career at the helm. Last month, John Mascola M.D., stepped down as head of the Vaccine Research Center under NIAID after more than 22 years. 

But Sharpless leaving has even more sting given just two months ago, President Joe Biden reinvigorated his Cancer Moonshot initiative, with the overall objective of cutting the cancer death rate in half over the next 25 years. In a statement, the White House’s moonshot coordinator Danielle Carnival, Ph.D., said Sharpless' contributions have been essential in the fight against cancer.

“The president’s goal of ending cancer as we know it today is grounded, in part, in the work of scientific discovery that Ned Sharpless has led at NCI,” she said.

Prior to joining NCI, Sharpless spent more than 14 years as a professor of medicine at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. During that period, he became director of the UNC Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center.

Replacing Sharpless is Doug Lowy, M.D., current principal director of NCI who led the institute on an interim basis for more than two years from 2015 to 2017. He also stepped in when Sharpless briefly ran the FDA.