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Norman Sharpless, National Cancer Institute chief, appointed acting FDA commissioner

Norman Sharpless, National Cancer Institute chief, appointed acting FDA commissioner
The Food and Drug Administration campus in Silver Spring, Md. (Andrew Harnik / Associated Press)

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 told Congress on 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.

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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 announced last week he was resigning to spend more time with his wife and three young children, who live in Connecticut.

Part of Sharpless’ 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 isn’t required for the NCI 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.

In his relatively short tenure at the cancer institute, Sharpless has pushed for increased data sharing, analysis and aggregation to develop new understanding and treatments for cancer. He also has 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 Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center before getting the top job at the 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.

“Ned has already proven to be an extraordinary leader throughout his career and while running the NCI,” said Ellen Sigal, chair 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.”

Laurie McGinley and Amy Goldstein write for the Washington Post.

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