Cancer Data Science Pulse

Dr. Tony Kerlavage Reflects on His Time at NCI CBIIT

Professional headshot of Tony Kerlavage, Ph.D.

After serving as CBIIT’s director for seven years and spending 13 years at NCI, Dr. Kerlavage plans to retire at the end of May 2024. Read this blog to learn about his experience as the director, advice for the future director, and plans for retirement.

Five years ago, I officially became the director of NCI CBIIT, after serving two years as acting director. I remember saying how it was a unique opportunity to make a positive impact on so many people. I’m very proud of our achievements in strengthening the organization during this time. Our work has not only improved the organization but also positively affected the lives of cancer patients.

I’m most proud of how my colleagues and I evolved CBIIT’s focus and activities to enable NCI’s scientific mission. My approach had always been to collaborate with colleagues from various NCI divisions, offices, and centers (DOCs). In doing this, we understood each other’s specific needs and ensured that our work together aligned with those needs. This wasn’t always CBIIT’s approach though, and while the change started before I became director, creating the necessary collaborations across the institute and developing the projects to support our scientific partners took consistent and intentional focus.

CBIIT has been working closely with the other NCI DOCs for years, supporting individual projects and concerted efforts in major programs (such as the NCI Cancer Research Data Commons [CRDC]), data sharing, and NCI Intramural Research Program data management. In hindsight, I might have tried to initiate this outreach and move these relationships forward more broadly and even more quickly. I also would have ensured that we invested more time and some dedicated funding in innovation.

The Challenges

While CBIIT’s primary mandate is to support NCI’s infrastructure, scientific application, and data sharing needs, understanding the technology landscape and how that might support NCI in the future is also an important priority for planning, modernization, and taking advantage of potentially transformative technologies. We’ve recognized that need and innovation projects are now part of our strategic plan; however, they are difficult to implement in a tight budget situation. As budgets allow, I would love to see CBIIT implementing some of these strategies.

The two biggest challenges I faced during my tenure were (1) a lack of adequate funding to accomplish all of CBIIT’s work, and (2) a shortage of Federal staff to carry out the work. To address these challenges, it was crucial that NCI leadership understand the critical and necessary role CBIIT plays in achieving the institute’s scientific mission.

The CBIIT Leadership Team and I made a strong case for illustrating how CBIIT critically supports NCI through foundational infrastructure, data sharing solutions, and scientific applications. As a result, NCI leadership better understood our budgetary and resource needs and how these directly supported their priorities, which led to several expansions of our base budget. We also hired key leaders with the skills and expertise required to understand both the scientific and technical needs across NCI. When I took on the acting director role in 2017 we had 55 federal staff members, and now we have 74 with an opportunity to increase our staff even more. We also had a base budget increase of 78%.

Supporting Priorities

Since the development of the CRDC, CBIIT has made significant progress in developing an ecosystem to support scientific discovery. With five repositories providing access to genomic, imaging, proteomic, canine, and other data types, along with analytic tools and cloud-based computing, CRDC has become an important resource for the cancer community.  We are now implementing some important new functionalities. These include lowering barriers to data contribution through a centralized data submission platform, data standardization to guarantee data findability, and a data discovery dashboard enabling search and visualization.

Understanding the need to maintain access to the CRDC (especially considering government funding ebbs and flows), we conducted a study to identify approaches for keeping the platform available over time. This sustainability study delivered recommendations to ensure continued financial viability, operational efficiency, significant value to the research community, and return on investment for NCI. We are now implementing new recommendations, including a new multi-tiered governance structure, an evaluation of cloud storage and data strategies, and standard operating procedures to streamline the management of the platform and data.

When I became CBIIT director, the Childhood Cancer Data Initiative (CCDI) had just kicked off with a terrific symposium in late July 2019 featuring researchers and advocates from across the country. Since then, we have made tremendous progress in making childhood cancer data available. Take, for example, the major success of CCDI’s Molecular Characterization Initiative, which offers state-of-the-art molecular testing at no cost to newly diagnosed children, adolescents, and young adults. Treating physicians receive the results of this testing for discussion with the patient and, potentially, to inform treatment options. These data are also de-identified and shared with the research community for secondary use and discovery. One goal of this effort is to understand what kinds of molecular testing will be most valuable (and eventually standard) for childhood cancer patients.

Another important achievement is the development of extensive infrastructure supporting a CCDI Data Ecosystem, which catalogs pediatric cancer data from around the world and makes different data types from thousands to millions of cases available for further analysis. The recently launched Childhood Cancer Clinical Data Commons houses harmonized childhood cancer demographics and phenotypic clinical data. By bringing these data together, we provide a vital resource for the childhood cancer research community.

I’m also very proud of the work CBIIT’s Office of Data Sharing has done to facilitate the research community’s knowledge and understanding of data sharing policies and approaches. The team’s workload has grown significantly over the past few years, and I expect to see the team continue to be acknowledged as the data sharing experts they are for NCI and, more broadly, for NIH.

CBIIT staff have also been instrumental in supporting NCI’s priorities internally. We made significant changes to the way IT is deployed at NCI. In response to the Federal Information Technology Acquisition Reform Act, we’ve embarked on standardizing IT for NCI’s administrative systems while nurturing diverse IT solutions for scientific needs. Over the years, newly established standardized NCI cloud environments have enabled the quick deployment of innovative tools and platforms in a standard and secure environment while reducing the overall cost of security authorizations.

Closing Remarks

Leaders are only as good as the people with whom they work. All the successes mentioned above are the result of the tremendous work of the CBIIT Programs and Offices and the leadership of Dr. Jaime Guidry Auvil, Mr. Jeff Shilling, Dr. Jill Barnholtz-Sloan, and Mr. Marcos Munozramos, and those who served as leaders previously. It’s been an honor and privilege to work with them and all the dedicated Federal and contract staff at CBIIT, as well as across NCI and NIH. I will miss the relationships, collaborations, and debates with these people. They have challenged my assumptions, helped me grow, and intellectually stimulated me. We’ve made significant progress together, and while there is still much to do, I believe I’ve left the organization in a stronger place than when I began my tenure as director.

To the next director of CBIIT, I relay the following advice:

  • Stay focused on the people. Ensure CBIIT staff have what they need to be successful; this will ensure the success of the organization. Fostering collaboration across CBIIT is equally important.
  • Maintain collaborative partnerships with the NCI DOCs. CBIIT’s main purpose is to ensure the science they conduct or fund has the maximum impact on the lives of cancer patients.
  • Be attentive to our partners across NIH and the cancer research community. Keep up with what is happening in the research community, stay engaged with them, find opportunities to collaborate, and recommend potential funding opportunities.

It is a bittersweet moment as I conclude the 13 years I’ve spent with NCI. However, I am excited for this next stage in my life. I have a lot of reading, both fiction and nonfiction, to catch up on. My wife and I plan to travel a good bit more than we have been. I’m also looking forward to being more intentional about self-care and spending more time with four generations of my family.

Wishing all of you the best success in your future endeavors!

Tony Kerlavage, Ph.D.
Director, Center for Biomedical Informatics and Information Technology
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Thank you Tony for your leadership, vision and work on behalf of NCI and the communities we serve! The NCI is stronger because of what you accomplished.
Thank you for submitting this comment. We will make sure Tony sees this!

After working with you during my eight years at The Institute for Genomic Research (TIGR) between 1997 and 2005, I was thrilled to see you take on a leadership role in shaping the data strategy at NCI. Although I may not have always agreed with you, and sometimes might have argued with you, I always admired you, your thoughtful approach, and your commitment to advancing data-driven cancer science.

If you are ever in Boston, drop me a note and drop by.

And know that you will be missed, my friend. Congratulations on all you have done and for making time to do other things that will enrich your life.

John Quackenbush
What a great tribute to Tony’s career, and your time as colleagues. Thank you for taking the time to leave this note, John. We’ll make sure to share this with Tony!