Kidney cancer expert Dr. W. Kimryn Rathmell to be appointed director of the NCI

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W. Kimryn Rathmell, MD, PhD, an internationally recognized expert in kidney cancer, is Chair of the Department of Medicine and Physician-in-Chief at Vanderbilt University Medical Center.

Kimryn Rathmell, MD, PhD, MMHC, the Hugh Jackson Professor of Medicine and chair of the Department of Medicine at Vanderbilt University Medical Center (VUMC), will be appointed Director of the National Cancer Institute (NCI).

Through this upcoming appointment, Rathmell will become the NCI’s 17th director and only the second woman to hold this position leading the nation’s fight against cancer. She was chosen to serve in this role by President Biden.

“I am thrilled with Dr. Rathmell’s appointment as our nation’s leader in the war on cancer — a tremendous honor for her and for Vanderbilt,” said Jeff Balser, MD, PhD, President and Chief Executive Officer of VUMC and Dean of Vanderbilt University School of Medicine. “Her contributions have been extraordinary, advancing cancer research with her colleagues in the Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center and through leadership as the chair of our Department of Medicine. I am confident Dr. Rathmell will have an enormous impact on the NCI and on the lives of millions who are fighting to survive cancer.”

Jane Freedman, MD, professor of Medicine and director of the Division of Cardiovascular Medicine, has been named to serve as interim chair for the Department of Medicine and physician-in-chief for VUMC. Her appointment is effective Dec. 1.

Freedman, who is also the Gladys Parkinson Stahlman Professor of Cardiovascular Research and physician-in-chief for the Vanderbilt Heart and Vascular Institute, joined VUMC in 2021 and oversees the Division of Cardiovascular Medicine’s research activities, clinical program and fellowship training. She is the first woman to lead the Division of Cardiovascular Medicine.

Since her arrival at VUMC, Freedman has overseen growth in National Institutes of Health (NIH) funding, philanthropy, clinical volume, and the establishment of dynamic new programs.

Rathmell, as director of the NCI, will lead the National Cancer Program and the NIH’s efforts to dramatically reduce the prevalence of cancer and improve the lives of cancer patients and their families through research into prevention and cancer biology, the development of new interventions, and the training and mentoring of new researchers. With a fiscal year budget of $7.3 billion and comprised of approximately 3,500 employees the NCI is the largest funder of cancer research in the world.

“As an oncologist and cancer researcher, the opportunities for cancer right now are incredible. The technology is at a place where we can do more to understand cancer in a way we never, ever could before. The advances, while they may seem slow to some people, are happening at a break-neck pace and continue to go faster. And to have a president who is supportive of cancer research and making a real impact on the burden of cancer, it’s like the stars have aligned,” Rathmell said. “We need more funding for cancer research, but I’m very enthusiastic about what we can do.”

As interim chair of the Department of Medicine, Freedman will be responsible for 1,043 faculty and more than 600 staff members in 13 academic divisions and several interdisciplinary centers, who are joined by more than 525 residents and fellows.

“The Department of Medicine is integral to the success of our organization. I am grateful to Dr. Freedman for assuming this important role following Dr. Rathmell’s departure,” said Balser. “She is an established senior leader who will help us continue to advance Medicine’s vital missions.”

Rathmell joined the faculty of Vanderbilt University and VUMC in 2015 as director of the Division of Hematology and Oncology. After serving in a series of increasingly responsible leadership roles, she was named as the ninth chair of the Department of Medicine in 2020 after serving as interim chair.

Under her leadership, the department’s overall research funding is currently ranked No. 3 among the nation’s departments of medicine in terms of funding from the NIH, while the impact of its research has also grown as measured by citations and faculty members receiving increased recognition by external organizations. According to the 2023-2024 U.S. News and World Report Best Graduate Schools rankings for Schools of Medicine-Research, the department’s internal medicine training program ranks 11th in the nation.

She is an internationally recognized physician-scientist whose career has spanned molecular biology research in the pathogenesis of kidney cancer; nationally funded large-scale genomic studies of cancer; clinical investigations bringing new biomarkers, imaging modalities and therapies to patient care; graduate and medical education; and as a national advocate for physician-scientist trainees, ethical treatment of drug shortages, equitable conflict of interest policies in publishing, and rare or heritable forms of kidney cancer.

As a clinician Rathmell has ushered in new lifesaving treatments and is a leader who has advocated for funding for kidney cancer research, including as a champion for rare subtypes of kidney cancer. She is the author of more than 250 peer-reviewed original articles, review articles, books and chapters and a frequently invited guest speaker on topics ranging from kidney cancer biology and cancer metabolism to academic leadership skills development.

“I think one of the biggest assets I can bring to the NCI is my experience learning from and working with medical scientists and clinicians in areas outside of cancer,” Rathmell said. “The broader perspective, and the range of work we can do to improve human health, is the secret sauce of the Department of Medicine.

“I immensely value working with all aspects of the department and with departments across the Medical Center, and I plan to bring the broad perspective, insatiable curiosity, and strong collaborative culture we have here to the NCI and beyond. I can’t emphasize enough how much I have learned from the incredibly talented people we have here at VUMC, and I will take that with me as I transition to this new role,” she said.

In 2020, Rathmell was elected as a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. In 2022, she was elected to the National Academy of Medicine, the prestigious non-governmental organization that advises the nation and the world on important aspects of medical science, health care and public health. Earlier this year, she was named as an American Society for Clinical Oncology (ASCO) fellow for her record of volunteer service, dedication and commitment to the organization. She was also elected to the American Academy of Arts & Sciences.

Rathmell is also a 2023 recipient of a Doris Duke Foundation (DDF) Paragon Award for Research Excellence. The award was presented to Rathmell and others who are alumni of the Doris Duke Clinical Scientist Development Awards program during a recent ceremony in New York City. The Paragon Award for Research Excellence is a one-time recognition of physician-scientists who have, according to the DDF, “significantly advanced knowledge toward the prevention, diagnosis and treatment of human disease or who have, through their professional contributions, improved health outcomes of patients today.”

The Kidney Cancer Association has recognized Rathmell’s research accomplishments and leadership achievements with its top honor, the Eugene P. Schonfeld Award, which recognizes highly respected health care professionals who have made significant contributions in the treatment of renal cell carcinoma. She is the first woman to receive the award. Rathmell has also received the Louisa Nelson Award for Nashville women of achievement, vision and inspiration and is a recent recipient of the American Association for Cancer Research Landon INNOVATOR Award for Personalized Medicine.

“I am honored to be following in the footsteps of Dr. Rathmell,” said Freedman. “She has been a visionary, a compassionate leader, and a driving force behind the remarkable success of our department. As she embarks on her new role at the NCI, she leaves a legacy of excellence and innovation.”

In addition to her clinical responsibilities, Freedman’s research interests include thrombosis, inflammation and cardiovascular disease; the role of gene expression and proteomics in precision medicine; and extracellular and noncoding RNAs in disease.

Freedman holds multiple active research grants. Her laboratory is engaged in studies in large populations on several major tracks. One is examining the role of cells that cause clots, such as platelets, in creating immunity and how that relates to heart disease. The other is examining the role of RNAs and proteins and their relationship with the origins of heart disease. She hopes to apply the findings of these large group studies to individuals, creating more precise therapies and diagnoses.

Freedman has held multiple national leadership roles in the American Heart Association (AHA) and currently serves as editor-in-chief of Circulation Research, the AHA’s flagship basic research journal. She is a member of the American Society of Clinical Investigation and vice president of the Association of University Cardiologists and was a charter member of the Acute Neural Injury and Epilepsy study section of the NIH. She has published more than 200 papers in medical journals and has presented invited lectures worldwide.

In 2022, Freedman was elected to membership in the Association of American Physicians, one of the nation’s most respected honor societies. In 2023, she received the American Heart Association’s Basic Cardiovascular Sciences Distinguished Achievement Award.

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