Real-life results lead UNC doctor to top cancer post

Dr. Norman "Ned" Sharpless, who led UNCs Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center, on path to being named director of National Cancer Institute

Christine T. Nguyen—North State Journal
Ashley Burnette

RALEIGH — This fall Ashley Burnette will be a freshman at Millbrook High School in Raleigh. It wasn’t that long ago she and her family were facing a much more uncertain future.In August 2010, 7-year-old Ashley was diagnosed with stage 4 neuroblastoma, a cancer that affects nerve cells and is found primarily in children younger than 10.”When she was diagnosed, I think the two-year survivorship for kids with what she had was about 20 percent,” Hunter Burnette, Ashley’s father, said.Nearly seven years later Ashley is cancer-free, and the Burnettes credit the University of North Carolina for saving her life.”After two years of treatment, she was clear,” Hunter said, “So we have a 13-year-old cancer survivor running around the house.”Positive outcomes like Ashley’s are why President Donald Trump looked to UNC’s Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center for the next director of the National Cancer Insititute (NCI), selecting Dr. Norman “Ned” Sharpless for the post.Sharpless, 50, received his undergraduate and medical degrees from UNC and has been with UNC’s cancer center since 2002. He was named director in 2014. NCI is one of 11 federal government agencies that makes up the Department of Health and Human Services. In the role, Sharpless would oversee the federal government’s cancer research and training, which includes a team of more than 4,000 people.”The thing that excites me is if Ned does get this position, which it sounds like he will, is he comes from the side of patient care and research,” Burnette said. “He understands that they go hand in hand, and he understands that patient care is a top priority, but he also understands the need for more research. Every dollar we can put toward research is a dollar put toward hopefully people not having to deal with some life-threatening illness.”Sharpless, a native of Greensboro, would replace Dr. Douglas Lowy as director of NCI. Lowy has served as acting director since April 2015.”Dr. Sharpless is a visionary leader and a truly gifted scientist and clinician, and we strongly agree he would be an excellent choice to lead the National Cancer Institute into the future,” UNC Chancellor Carol L. Folt said in a statement.UNC Lineberger Cancer Center director of communications Bill Schaller said Sharpless would not comment on the forthcoming appointment at this time since Trump has thus far only announced his intent to appoint him to the post.”This is a wonderful honor for Dr. Sharpless — and for UNC Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center and UNC overall — to be considered for this extremely important position,” Schaller said in an email. “He is most deserving.”Burnette said Sharpless’ experience in care, research and administration makes him an ideal choice to be the country’s top doctor in battling cancer.”In my opinion — which is a little biased — Ned runs the top place in the country,” he said of Sharpless and UNC. “He’s treated people over the years, he’s also done research, and he’s run a world-class institution. I can’t imagine them making a better pick.”The state-of-the-art facility and cutting-edge research all played a role in Ashley’s care, but her father said it is the people Sharpless and Dr. H. Shelton “Shelley” Earp — who was Sharpless’ predecessor at UNC’s cancer center and will return to the role on an interim basis should Sharpless join NCI — put in place that made all the difference.”It was an experience that none of us would ever want to go through again and would never want to wish on anyone, but Ashley’s attitude and the attitude of the wonderful people at UNC made her illness bearable and made it an experience that we all got through together,” he said.