The president of Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Dr. Elizabeth “Betsy” Nabel, is stepping down after 11 years leading the prestigious nonprofit medical center to pursue opportunities in the for-profit biotech sector.
Nabel said Tuesday that she will depart March 1 and begin working with her husband, Dr. Gary Nabel, who recently left a high-profile job at the drug company Sanofi and launched his own biotech startup.
In an interview, Nabel said she is leaving the Brigham on solid footing and is excited about the next phase of her career. She said the decision to leave was her own.
“I really want to spend time driving biotech innovation by advising companies and serving on boards,” she said. “This is where I believe I can have the greatest impact.”
Nabel said that she’s proud of the strong and resilient culture she fostered at the hospital, and that she helped diversify hospital leadership by naming the first three women and the first Black person to chair departments.
Her decision to step down from the Brigham, she said, was unrelated to a controversy last year about her previous role as a board member at Moderna, the high-flying biotech company that has developed one of the leading vaccines for COVID-19.
When she leaves the Brigham, Nabel said, she plans initially to focus on her husband’s new venture, which is developing immune therapies for cancer and infectious diseases — but she plans to pursue roles with other companies, as well.
“I’m very interested in early-stage biotech development,” she said, “where you take a scientific idea, where you start a new company, you develop a scientific vision and strategy and business plan . . . you seek investors.”
Brigham officials have not named her successor.
The move marks a formal pivot into an area Nabel, 68, already knows well. Her interest in the business side of science and medicine is no secret; she has cultivated that interest even while running the Brigham.
Nabel’s paying jobs outside of the hospital have also been a source of controversy.
Last July, she resigned from the board of Moderna amid concerns that her connection posed a conflict with the Brigham’s role in the clinical trial of Moderna’s COVID vaccine. Nabel sold $8.5 million of stock in Moderna last year and used the proceeds to make charitable contributions, her spokeswoman, Erin McDonough, said Tuesday. Nabel, through her spokeswoman, did not disclose how much of the proceeds she donated, or where.
Previously, while serving as lead medical adviser to the National Football League, Nabel defended the league’s record on safety. A 2016 congressional committee report said she was part of an NFL effort to steer funding for a landmark concussion study away from a group of researchers who had helped establish a link between football and long-term brain damage.
She remains a board member of the medical device company Medtronic.
Nabel has been paid for these positions on top of her compensation as Brigham president, which totaled $2.4 million in 2018.
She said that her side jobs have made her a stronger hospital chief and that concerns about her work with other companies have been based on a lack of understanding about how conflicts of interest are managed.
“I have multitasked all my life,” she said. “I work 12-plus hours a day.”
Nabel said that she had always planned to leave after about a decade at the Brigham, and that she delayed her exit when the pandemic broke out. Now that vaccines have arrived, and the end of the pandemic appears to be in sight, she is ready to move on, she said.
A cardiologist, Nabel was director of the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute — an arm of the National Institutes of Health — before coming to the Brigham in 2010.
Her tenure at the hospital has included periods of tragedy, growth, change, and tension. In 2013, the doctors and nurses at the Brigham treated people who were gravely injured in the Boston Marathon bombing. In 2015, a surgeon was gunned down at the hospital.
John Fish, chairman of the Brigham’s board of trustees, said Nabel has taken the institution “to a different level.” He credited her for helping the hospital raise $1.75 billion, half of it going to medical research; for growing the hospital’s revenue to $4.3 billion last year; and for recruiting and promoting diverse physician leaders.
Under Nabel, the Brigham in 2018 removed large portraits of former department chairs from a prominent auditorium because nearly all of them portrayed white men, which didn’t reflect the diversity of hospital employees. The portraits were dispersed throughout the hospital.
Nabel also oversaw the expansion of the Brigham’s campus in Boston’s Longwood area, including the addition of the Hale Building for Transformative Medicine.
“We’ve been through a bombing, we’ve been through shootings, and now a global pandemic, and the hospital’s revenue has grown substantially — close to doubling,” Fish said.
He defended Nabel’s involvement with corporate boards, saying that she acted appropriately and that her outside work enhanced her work at the Brigham. He said Nabel is leaving of her own volition.
In 2016, tension between Brigham leaders and the Massachusetts Nurses Association nearly erupted into a strike of 3,300 nurses; the hospital and the union reached a last-minute deal to avoid the walkout.
Union officials remain critical of the hospital leader. “Nabel consistently prioritized maintaining a certain proﬁt margin, polishing the hospital’s public image, and expanding into new markets rather than valuing front-line nurses and other staff,” Trish Powers, head of the nurses’ bargaining unit at the Brigham, said in a statement.
Brigham and Women’s and Massachusetts General Hospital are the anchor institutions of the Mass General Brigham system, formerly known as Partners HealthCare. Fish said he will work with Dr. Anne Klibanski, chief executive of Mass General Brigham, and Scott Sperling, chairman of the system’s board, to search for a new hospital president.
“Betsy has helped shape our vision of a leading integrated academic health system, allowing us to meet the needs of our patients in a much more impactful way,” Klibanski said in a statement.
Dr. Laurie H. Glimcher, chief executive of Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, said in a statement that she will “miss our CEO trio — Betsy, Sandi Fenwick, and me — who are the first women to lead these wonderful institutions.” Fenwick is retiring as CEO of Boston Children’s Hospital in March.
Earlier in her career, at the University of Michigan, Nabel launched two companies with her husband and Dr. Jeffrey Leiden, who later became CEO of Vertex Pharmaceuticals. One was acquired by Boston Scientific and another remains a public company today, said Leiden, now the executive chairman at Vertex and a member of the Brigham hospital board.
Leiden called Nabel a strong clinician and businessperson, but said, “When Betsy sees young people, the next generation of science and medicine, that’s when her eyes light up.”
Dr. Thomas H. Lee, a longtime friend of Nabel’s who met her when they both were medical students at Cornell, said she prizes education and research. Lee worked with Nabel at the Brigham and is now chief medical officer at the health care consulting company Press Ganey.
“Betsy isn’t the person to stand up there and gives a rousing speech. Her strength is she really does have the right values,” he said.
Nabel met her husband when they were both resident physicians at the Brigham in the 1980s. They have three adult children — all physicians.
“For them, after decades, to go back to working shoulder to shoulder in a startup doing research,” Lee said, “to me, there’s a lovely symmetry to it.”