Cancer Research UK chief executive Paul Nurse is leaving the charity at the end of November to become president of Rockefeller University in New York.
He said: "As difficult as it is to depart from such an extraordinary institution as Cancer Research UK, the opportunity to lead Rockefeller is one that I could not turn down. Few universities are as committed as Rockefeller to the individual researcher and the individual graduate student, allowing each to follow the science wherever it leads."
Sir Paul will continue to advise the charity. A spokeswoman said: "Because Sir Paul has always said he would remain chief executive only during the transition period after merger, the trustees have already had preliminary discussions about his successor."
Rockefeller, the US's first biomedical research institution, has been seeking a president since last February, when Arnold Levine resigned. Sir Paul won the Nobel prize for biology in 2001 for discovering a key gene in the cell cycle that controls the duplication and division of cells. His new position will allow him to further his research.
He was knighted in 1999 for his work in cancer research. He was director-general of the Imperial Cancer Research Fund for five years, before its merger with the Cancer Research Campaign in 2001.
Sir Paul, an outspoken critic of government funding for science, will remain one of five Nobel laureates on the advisory committee for the lobby group Save British Science. Peter Cotgreave, director of Save British Science, said: "He is leaving to go to the US because he was offered a very significant opportunity. I'm delighted for him. Science is an international endeavour and it needs a flow of people."