The NCI's New Director
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By Nancy Volkers

The NCI's New Director

John E. Niederhuber talks about his priorities and the NCI budget

By Nancy Volkers


Watching his wife, Tracey, die of breast cancer five years ago shaped the way cancer researcher and surgeon John E. Niederhuber thinks about access to treatment.

After Tracey’s third breast cancer diagnosis, Niederhuber, a former director of the University of Wisconsin Comprehensive Cancer Center, and his wife researched clinical trials. “Even though I was director of a cancer center at that time, I couldn’t bring that therapy to where we lived,” he recalls. “She had to get on an airplane and be away from her family. She told me I had to fix that.”

Developing a program that delivers the latest therapies to people where they live has become one of Niederhuber’s priorities since he was sworn into office in October 2006 as the director of the National Cancer Institute (NCI). About 85 percent of cancer patients are treated in their own communities, rather than in designated cancer centers.

“We have to get our latest discoveries to people,” says Niederhuber, whose research interests include adult stem cell biology and studies of the tumor microenvironment.

Laurie Fenton, the president of the Lung Cancer Alliance, a nonprofit organization based in Washington, D.C., has met Niederhuber and says she has found him engaging and willing to listen. “I think Dr. Niederhuber’s personal experiences will benefit the patient community,” she says. “Going through something like that, from diagnosis to treatment options, is going to help him understand, more than just from an academic sense.”

In his new post, Niederhuber faces tough spending decisions. The proposed NCI budget for fiscal year 2007, which is approximately $4.75 billion, is down almost $40 million from 2006 and hasn’t kept up with inflation since 2003.

Fewer funds for NCI mean the institute risks losing its reputation as the country’s leader in cancer research, according to Susan L. Weiner, the president and founder of the Children’s Cause for Cancer Advocacy, a nonprofit organization based in Silver Spring, Md. Weiner is also concerned that squeezed budgets may dissuade younger scientists from entering the cancer field and slow the clinical trials that test new drugs.

Besides budget strictures, the new director must also parry the “2015” issue: former NCI Director Andrew von Eschenbach’s goal of ending the suffering and death from cancer by 2015. The quixotic goal has had its critics, though von Eschenbach has said that focusing on a “magic moment” like 2015 wasn’t the point.

Niederhuber echoes that view. “I believe the goal is much more important than the date,” he says.