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
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
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
“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.