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Nation’s cancer chief appointed acting FDA commissioner

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 3/12/2019 Laurie McGinley, Amy Goldstein
a man wearing a suit and tie: Dr. Norman “Ned”Sharpless, director of the National Cancer Institute, is named acting FDA commissioner. © H. Darr Beiser/ Dr. Norman “Ned”Sharpless, director of the National Cancer Institute, is named acting FDA commissioner.

National Cancer Institute Director Norman “Ned” Sharpless will become acting commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, succeeding Scott Gottlieb, who is leaving next month, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said Tuesday.

Sharpless, 52, an accomplished researcher, oncologist and administrator, has been director of the cancer institute for about 18 months, earning good reviews from cancer advocates, patient groups and academic researchers.

Sharpless has had a cordial relationship with Gottlieb, who supported his appointment to the FDA job. And he has become a regular player in evening basketball games arranged by FDA officials. Gottlieb said last week he is resigning to spend more time with his wife and three young children, who live in Connecticut.

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Azar announced Sharpless’s appointment at a hearing before the House Energy and Commerce Committee’s health subcommittee. “We are going to be carrying forward Dr. Gottlieb’s vision,” he said. “His agenda is my agenda. My agenda is his agenda.”

Part of Sharpless’s appeal is that he could start at the FDA relatively quickly. It’s also possible he would be nominated as permanent commissioner later. He has never been confirmed by the Senate — which is not required for the National Cancer Institute post or acting head of the FDA. But as a presidential appointee, he has been extensively vetted and has divested himself of financial holdings that could pose conflicts of interest.

Sharpless has contributed to a number of Democratic candidates, including a total of $750 to Barack Obama’s 2008 and 2012 presidential campaigns, according to Federal Election Commission records.

Azar said the process of searching for a permanent replacement to Gottlieb is underway.

In his relatively short tenure at the cancer institute, Sharpless pushed for increased data sharing, analysis and aggregation to develop new understanding and treatments for cancer. He also pressed to modernize clinical trials and worked to increase funding for academic investigators around the country, even when that required cutting internal programs.

Sharpless was director of the University of North Carolina’s Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center before getting the top job at NCI, which is part of the National Institutes of Health. He would be the second cancer institute director to switch to the FDA; the first was Andrew von Eschenbach, who moved to the agency in 2005. Sharpless also founded two biotech companies.

“Ned has already proven to be an extraordinary leader throughout his career and while running the NCI,” said Ellen Sigal, chairwoman of the advocacy group Friends of Cancer Research. “His dynamic style, deep scientific knowledge and passion for helping patients make him an ideal next commissioner during this pivotal time for science and public health.”

Azar also announced that Douglas Lowy, the cancer institute’s deputy director, will serve as acting director of the NCI — a post he also held during the Obama administration. Lowy is known for award-winning research that led to the development of a vaccine for the human papillomavirus, which causes cervical, anal, throat and other cancers.

In a statement issued separately, Azar said Sharpless’s “deep scientific background and expertise will make him a strong leader for FDA.” He added, “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.”

Sharpless said in an interview with The Washington Post last year that his frustration with the inadequate cancer treatments of the late 1990s helped fuel his interest in basic research. He became a geneticist and molecular biologist, focusing on cell division and aging, and a practicing oncologist.

A native of Greensboro, N.C., he attended the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill as an undergraduate and medical student. At the cancer center there, his lab did extensive research on the role of the p16 tumor suppressor gene in aging and cancer.

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