President Bush named Andrew von Eschenbach as acting FDA commissioner. Von Eschenbach, a physician and cancer survivor who remains the director of the National Cancer Institute (NCI) at the National Institutes of Health, replaces Lester Crawford, who resigned on September 23, just two months after being confirmed by the Senate.
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.”
Also, he successfully passed the Senate confirmation process when he took the position with NCI.
However, 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.
Still, 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.
The new selection 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.
The FDA's new acting commissioner is getting compliments for his government experience but criticism for his history of seeking quick drug approvals.
The Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America praised the speedy appointment of von Eschenbach to the FDA helm.
"His leadership, and the expertise of dedicated veteran FDA regulators, will allow the agency to continue its important work until a new commissioner is nominated and confirmed," said Billy Tauzin, president and chief executive of the DC trade group.
The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), meanwhile, questioned von Eschenbach's previous efforts to push for a faster drug-approval process.
In 2003, he promoted an FDA initiative to quicken the agency's review process.
"We are highly supportive of this forward-looking effort to accelerate the development of critical new drugs, especially cancer treatments and preventives, and deliver them to patients faster," he said at the time.
"The FDA does not need someone who will choose speed over safety, or else we'll have a lot more Vioxx" cases, said Michael Jacobson, executive director of the Washington public health advocacy group.
Vioxx, an arthritis painkiller, was approved by the FDA but pulled from the market by maker Merck & Co. Inc. nearly a year ago after a company study linked the drug to increased risk of heart attack or stroke.
Since then, another very popular drug, Bextra, has been pulled from the market, and other well-known drugs have received stronger warnings as the FDA stepped up its drug safety reviews.