May 16, 2023
Dr. Bertagnolli Will Receive the 2023 Allen Lichter Visionary Leader Award at the 2023 ASCO Annual Meeting
By Aaron Tallent
Monica M. Bertagnolli, MD, FACS, FASCO, director of the U.S. National Cancer Institute (NCI), will receive the 2023 Allen Lichter Visionary Leader Award in recognition of her work to improve the understanding of cancer and develop innovations that promote high-quality care.
“Allen has been an inspiring mentor and role model for me, and it is an honor to receive this award,” Dr. Bertagnolli said. “He is a great example of someone who is able to take great ideas and turn them into realities on a national scale.”
Improving the Lives of Patients
Dr. Bertagnolli made the decision to pursue a career in medicine while growing up on a cattle ranch and attending elementary and high school in Rock Springs, a town in southwestern Wyoming. The daughter of first-generation Italian and French Basque immigrants, she graduated from Princeton University and completed her medical degree at the University of Utah before training in surgery at Brigham and Women’s Hospital.
Throughout her career, Dr. Bertagnolli has specialized in treating gastrointestinal tumors and soft tissue sarcomas. In 2007, she became the first woman to be appointed to chief of surgical oncology at the Dana-Farber Brigham Cancer Center. Her approach as a leader has remained constant.
“I am guided by the rule that we all use in the clinic every day, which is to do everything required to take care of people with cancer,” Dr. Bertagnolli said. “In almost any situation you face as a leader, we are guided by what will either help make life better for someone or help them be free of this terrible disease.”
One path for improving the lives of patients has been through research. Dr. Bertagnolli’s laboratory at the Dana-Farber/Harvard Cancer Center made advancements to improving the understanding of the role of adenomatous polyposis coli mutations in gastrointestinal cancer growth. She also led gastrointestinal science translational research within the NCI Cooperative Groups Program (now known as NCI’s National Clinical Trials Network) and served as group chair of the Alliance for Clinical Trials in Oncology.
Another way to help patients is by learning from every one of them. Dr. Bertagnolli advocated for this in a number of ways as 2018-2019 ASCO president, including through the development of Minimal Common Oncology Data Elements (mCODE), a consensus standard for sharing the data of patients with cancer across different electronic health record (EHR) systems. She explained that vision for mCODE came from being in clinic with patients and hearing them say, “If there is anything about me or my experience that could benefit somebody else, I want to help them.” This same desire from patients to contribute and the potential of using real-world data to improve care is also what inspired then-ASCO CEO Allen Lichter, MD, FASCO, to launch the CancerLinQ initiative in 2012. The two efforts go hand in hand.
“There are still huge gaps in our knowledge and one of the ways to start filling them is to get much better data from every patient and doctor in clinic. If we are going to achieve this, we need some tools that we do not have today,” Dr. Bertagnolli said.
One challenge was the lack of interoperability across many of the 1,500 available EHR systems that was not only hindering the ability to access the data but also putting an extra burden on patients who may be going to various health care sites using different EHR vendors. To overcome this obstacle, Dr. Bertagnolli worked with ASCO to convene a working group of oncologists, informaticians, researchers, and experts in terminologies and standards to create mCODE, a core set of data elements that should be used to populate all EHRs for patients with cancer to improve sharing.
“It is a standard way to make data from different sources intelligible so that patients seen across the entire U.S. health care system, from remote rural clinics to large academic medical centers, can contribute to new knowledge,” Dr. Bertagnolli said.
Learning From Her Own Experience
In October 2022, Dr. Bertagnolli became the 16th director of NCI. Under her leadership, the NCI has launched a National Cancer Plan, a living document with eight goals for preventing cancer, reducing deaths from the disease, and ensuring the best possible quality of life for people living with it.
“NCI’s mission is to enable research that leads to every single person with cancer living a full and active life without terrible side effects from either their disease or their treatment. This plan sets a roadmap for achieving this goal,” Dr. Bertagnolli said.
In December, Dr. Bertagnolli was diagnosed with early-stage hormone receptor–positive, HER2-negative breast cancer, but said the treatment is going well and is scheduled to be completed by the 2023 ASCO Annual Meeting. She also said that her experience has helped her see her work come full circle.
“I am so personally grateful for the decades of research that gave my care team the knowledge required to treat my disease. Being a patient has validated everything that I am committed to as a clinician and researcher,” Dr. Bertagnolli said.