Senate confirms Biden pick to lead National Institutes of Health

The U.S. Senate on Tuesday confirmed a cancer expert, Dr. Monica Bertagnolli, to lead the National Institutes of Health.

In a bipartisan vote of 62-36, more than a dozen Republicans joined all but one of the body’s Democrats, backing President Joe Biden’s pick to lead the federal medical research center.

A trained surgical oncologist, Bertagnolli, of Massachusetts, previously served as director of the National Cancer Institute, becoming the first woman to lead the institute, the White House said in May when it announced her nomination to lead NIH, which oversees the Cancer Institute.

Monica Bertagnolli testifies during her Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee confirmation hearing to be the next Director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), on Oct, 18, 2023, in Washington, D.C.

Bertagnolli replaces Dr. Lawrence Tabak, the acting director, who had served since December 2021. Prior to Tabak, Dr. Francis Collins led the NIH under three presidential administrations, beginning with President Barack Obama in 2009. The NIH, based in Bethesda, Maryland, administers various research organizations that pursue scientific discoveries, including developing vaccines and other innovations in medicine.

Xavier Becerra, the secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees the NIH, said in a statement that Bertagnolli would bring the “same tireless energy and clear vision” to the NIH that she demonstrated at the Cancer Institute, “working to improve the health and well-being of Americans” as she has throughout her career.

“She has built a reputation for her willingness to take on the deadliest diseases facing patients and as a powerful advocate for cancer patients, working to end cancer as we know it,” Becerra said.

Before leading the Cancer Institute, Bertagnolli was the Richard E. Wilson professor of surgery in oncology at Harvard Medical School, as well as a surgeon at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, a Massachusetts hospital affiliated with Harvard. She was also a member of the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute’s Gastrointestinal Cancer Treatment and Sarcoma Centers.

There were two notable exceptions among the progressive wing of the Senate.

WASHINGTON, DC - SEPTEMBER 06: U.S. President Joe Biden holds up his mask while delivering remarks to an audience of leaders from the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) and the Pacific Maritime Association (PMA) during an event to congratulate them on finalizing a new labor contract in the State Dining Room at the White House on September 06, 2023 in Washington, DC. Biden talked about his administration's efforts to alleviate supply chain bottlenecks and its work to support workers and ports. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images) ORG XMIT: 776028825 ORIG FILE ID: 1663965792

Sen. Bernie Sanders, an Independent from Vermont, who chairs the Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, spoke on the Senate floor about prescription drug costs and the need to reform the NIH. He voted not to confirm Bertagnolli. Sen. John Fetterman, a progressive Democrat from Pennsylvania, was the only member of Biden’s party to vote against Bertagnolli. Like Sanders, he expressed concern about her standing up to “Big Pharma.”

The American Cancer Society and its action network supported her confirmation. The health nonprofit’s CEO, Dr. Karen Knudsen, pointed to her “first-hand knowledge” progress in cancer innovation and her understanding of cancer patients’ needs as evidence of her strong foundation for her new role.

“In short, she is a game changer,” Knudsen said.

Bertagnolli grew up on a ranch in Wyoming. She was raised by first-generation immigrant parents of Italian and French Basque descent, the White House said. She was educated at Princeton University and attended medical school at the University of Utah.