In a coup for its medical faculty, Georgetown University has persuaded one of the country's leading experts on breast cancer to resign a top position with the federal government to head the school's Lombardi Cancer Research Center.

University officials described the appointment of Dr. Marc E. Lippman, a 17-year veteran of the National Cancer Institute, as a critical step to restoring the stature of the Lombardi Center. Founded in 1970, the Lombardi program initially won recognition from the government as a comprehensive cancer center, but in recent years, scientists say, its research output has diminished while it has faced greater financing difficulties.

"There's an opportunity here to forge a new beginning," said Dr. John F. Griffith, Georgetown's executive vice president for health sciences.

With Lippman, the university is getting a scientist with a worldwide reputation, as well as a first-class clinician who uses state-of-the-art therapies to treat women suffering from breast cancer.

Moreover, Lippman said he expects that as many as 30 other clinicians, researchers and workers from his laboratory in Bethesda will accompany him to Georgetown in July when he starts work, pending routine final approval from top university authorities. Lippman has been negotiating with Georgetown for roughly six months, and he formally accepted its offer Thursday.

"Lippman is an absolutely inspired clinical researcher and among the most gifted clinical investigators in the country in any field," said Dr. Samuel Broder, chief of clinical oncology at NCI. "He has the kind of commitment and passion to cure cancer that we need."

While Lippman said his prime motivation for leaving the National Cancer Institute is the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to head the Lombardi Center, his departure underscores the continuing struggle the National Institutes of Health faces to keep its top scientists from leaving for private industry or academia.

"We're facing increased competition from a lot of places," said Dr. Bruce Chabner, director of cancer treatment at NCI. "All of us are offered jobs that pay more." In addition, he added, "Both industry and universities are well-funded enough that they can offer people comparable resources" for research.

Chabner said the top salaries for researchers of Lippman's caliber are in the $80,000 range, a figure easily doubled or even tripled in the private sector. Neither Georgetown officials nor Lippman would disclose his new salary.

In an interview this week, Lippman said money was a factor in his decision to leave, but not the only one. More important, he said, was the greater flexibility he anticipates in hiring key staff members and the expectation of far greater support for his research efforts from the university and private industry.

In addition, Lippman cited the allure of creating a first-class cancer center in a city that reports one of the highest cancer death rates in the country. He said one of his initial priorities will be to establish model research and treatment programs for breast, colon and prostate cancer.

"This is a city which quite frankly has rather limited cancer resources right now," Lippman said. "This is a fantastic opportunity . . . to put in place a full clinical research facility that will be a jewel in Washington."