Cancer institute head named acting FDA chief

By Hank Schultz

- Last updated on GMT

FDA photo
FDA photo
Dr Ned Sharpless, MD, who is the current head of the National Cancer Institute, will be the interim head of the Food and Drug Administration when Dr Scott Gottlieb, MD, leaves next month.

HHS Secretary Alex Azar announced the temporary appointment at a congressional hearing on Tuesday. The move comes in the wake of Gottlieb’s abrupt departure announcement, which came on March 5. Gottlieb, whose family remained in Connecticut while he was in Washington, said that he wanted to spend more time with his family. 

Observers contacted by NutraIngredients-USA at the recent Expo West trade show said there was little reason to doubt that that was his true motivation, and there were no rumors of office politics or friction.

“It’s a consuming job,”​ said Dan Fabricant, PhD, president and CEO of the Natural Products Association. Fabricant was head of the Division (now Office) of Dietary Supplement Programs at FDA from 2011 to 2014.

Gottlieb said to have recommended Sharpless as replacement

Dr Ned Sharpless, MD

In a Twitter post on Tuesday, Gottlieb said Sharpless, “[I]s a friend to FDA, a great public health champion, a dedicated physician, and will be warmly welcomed into his new role. FDA will benefit greatly from his leadership.”

According to the news website Politico​, Gottlieb has recommended that Sharpless be given the job permanently. There is as yet no timeline to pick Gottlieb’s successor. 

“Dr. Sharpless’ deep scientific background and expertise will make him a strong leader for FDA,” ​Azar said in a statement.  

"There will be no let-up in the agency’s focus, from ongoing efforts on drug approvals and combating the opioid crisis to modernizing food safety and addressing the rapid rise in youth use of e-cigarettes,” ​Azar added. 

According to Politico, FDA principal deputy administrator Amy Abernethy and HHS Assistant Secretary for Health Brett Giroir are also reportedly early contenders for the permanent position. 

Prolific researcher

Sharpless, whose given name is Norman, was appointed by Pres. Trump to lead the Cancer Institute in 2017. Prior to that, he was director of the University of North Carolina (UNC) Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center, a position he held since January 2014.  Sharpless is a UNC School of Medicine alumnus and has been a member of the faculty since 2002. In addition, he has held an endowed chair in cancer research since 2012.

According a bio on the NCI website, he has served as chief of the Aging Biology and Cancer Section in the National Institute on Aging’s Laboratory of Genetics and Genomics. A search of the PubMed database shows 173 papers listing Sharpless as principal or coauthor.

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