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Jill Wechsler is Pharm Exec's Washington Corespondent
Hours after Lester Crawford resigns, the head of the National Cancer Institute takes his place on the FDA hot seat.
George W. Bush wasted no time naming his family friend and fellow Texan, Andrew von Eschenbach as acting FDA commissioner.
Von Eschenbach, a physician and cancer survivor who remains the director of the National Cancer Institute at the National Institutes of Health, replaces Lester Crawford, who resigned on Sept. 23, just two months after being confirmed by the Senate.
The new commissioner inherits thorny problems that plagued Crawford and delayed his Senate confirmation. Because he served as acting or deputy commissioner during the past five years, Crawford could not escape responsibility for the drug-safety issues in the Vioxx debacle, the flu vaccine shortage, or the agency’s delay in deciding over-the-counter access to Plan B, the morning-after pill.
Most of these problems-or similar ones-are likely to follow von Eschenbach into office. But unlike his predecessor, who was a veterinarian and food safety expert, von Eschenbach has strong relationships with the medical research community. As a medical doctor, a cancer survivor and, until he joined NCI, the president-elect of the American Cancer Society, he is popular with many patient groups.
“Dr. Andrew von Eschenbach’s appointment as acting chief of the Food and Drug Administration is great news for the patient community,” said Michael Paranzino, president of Psoriasis Cure Now “Dr. von Eschenbach understands the urgent need to speed to market new treatments for patients.”
On the political front, he shares a Texas connection-and long friendship with George H.W. Bush-with many cabinet-level officials. In addition, he has successfully passed the Senate confirmation process when he took the position with NCI.
But von Eschenbach is not without controversy. In 2003, an NCI fact sheet erroneously stated that having an abortion might increase a woman’s risk of breast cancer. He also set a public goal of making cancer a “manageable disease” by 2015, which his sympathetic critics called optimistic at best. Others called the statement a headline-grabbing stunt.
But von Eschenbach troubles the administration less than Crawford. Officials hinted that undisclosed financial issues were the immediate cause of Crawford’s departure, and the White House appeared content to let him go at a time when a leader with strong medical and scientific credentials may restore public trust in the troubled agency.
Von Eschenbach said he plans to retain his position at NCI. It may take months for the White House to appoint, and the Senate to confirm, a permanent FDA commissioner.