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Vol. LXVII, No. 12
June 5, 2015


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Dr. Doug Lowy


NCI’s Lowy Presents His Vision During Town Hall Meeting
By Viviane Callier

Following in the footsteps of former NCI director Dr. Harold Varmus, who retired Apr. 1 after holding the post for 5 years and also serving as NIH director from 1993-1999, would seem like a daunting challenge for any leader. But new NCI acting director Dr. Doug Lowy certainly appeared ready to assume the mantle during his first town hall meeting at NCI’s Shady Grove campus to share his vision and priorities for the coming year.

After noting the superb leadership of his predecessor, Lowy emphasized his intention to continue many of the initiatives created during Varmus’s tenure, including NCI’s Center for Global Health, the Center for Cancer Genomics, the Provocative Questions Initiative and the Outstanding Investigator Awards for extramural scientists.

He also stressed his own commitment to be an active acting director. Lowy said he was “especially enthusiastic” about the Precision Medicine Initiative (PMI) recently announced by President Obama. NCI has already launched some precision medicine trials, he noted, including the ALCHEMIST and Lung-MAP trials; the MATCH and Pediatric MATCH trials are forthcoming.

Dr. Doug Lowy, NCI acting director

Dr. Doug Lowy, NCI acting director

The PMI, he said, will continue the momentum toward the development of cancer therapies that are “based on a molecular pathology and a mechanistic understanding of disease so that we can try to give the right kind of treatment to the patients who have the most appropriate catalog of molecular abnormalities.” The PMI also includes a plan to develop better preclinical models to understand and combat resistance to cancer treatment and to create a “cancer data commons” to store and share molecular information about different cancers.

Moreover, Lowy said that he plans to bring NCI’s research activities in several areas into “sharper focus,” including cancer prevention and screening, cancer health disparities research and support for basic research.

Having trained and worked at NIH since 1975, Lowy is no stranger to the federal research environment or to groundbreaking scientific achievements. His own research over the years has focused on molecular biology, virology and cancer pathogenesis. Last year, along with his long-time research partner Dr. John T. Schiller, Lowy was awarded the National Medal of Technology and Innovation by President Obama for work that led to the development of human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccines. The HPV vaccine work, he recounted, started 15 years after he became an investigator at NCI.

In the area of prevention and screening, Lowy said that, like cancer treatment, it will benefit from a precision medicine approach. With cancer health disparities, although he said that it’s not possible to address every type of disparity, he hopes to focus on a small number of important disparities or factors that influence them to better understand them and identify and study ways to address them. Finally, he emphasized the need for continued support for basic research. The “word on the street,” he said, is that NCI will only fund basic research “that has immediate translational potential.” That is not and should not be the case, he stressed.

“Some of those most important discoveries will come from basic research” that doesn’t have immediate translational potential, he continued. “And I think it’s really important for the NCI to underline, especially for our young investigators, that what we want to see is outstanding research.”

In summing up his comments, Lowy expressed his deep appreciation for “the outstanding individuals at all levels of NCI,” and emphasized that “we all rely on each other. Cancer research is a team sport.”

Lowy also took several questions from staff. One member of the audience asked whether NCI has the leverage to ensure that an invention developed here is made accessible to all who need it. Lowy explained that, although NCI does not have this kind of leverage, it is possible to negotiate licensing agreements favorably. An example of that is the HPV vaccine, which he had a central role in developing and which is now broadly available.

Another question related to the role of epidemiology and health services research. In the exchange that followed, Lowy stressed the importance and benefits of working with other federal agencies such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to have a bigger impact on disease.

In his answer to a final question about balancing his dual role as acting director and lab chief, Lowy stated that he plans to continue to run his lab. He stressed that it’s important that, as acting director, he not lose touch with the problems that investigators face every day in conducting their research for the American people.

“I think it is important for all of us, regardless of where we are in this organization, to recognize what our long-term goals are, to help people live longer, healthier lives by decreasing the incidence of cancer and improving the outlook of cancer for those patients who develop it,” he said.

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