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von Eschenbach Drops NCI Hat…for Now
In the face of sharp criticism, the US Food and Drug Administration’s new acting commissioner Andrew von Eschenbach agreed to hand over active leadership of the National Cancer Institute (NCI, Bethesda, MD) and not try to wear two hats at the same time. He issued a memo on Sept. 30, just a week after assuming his FDA position, stating that John Niederhuber, a newly appointed NCI deputy director, would take over day-to-day management of the Institute. Von Eschenbach also said that he would not participate in the approval of new drug applications or other FDA matters that involve NCI research.
When he was initially named to the FDA post following the surprise resignation of commissioner Lester Crawford, von Eschenbach announced that he would continue as leader of the cancer center. Congressional leaders blasted that decision, however, and pointed to inherent conflicts of interest between advocating for speedy access to new cancer treatments while overseeing the safety and effectiveness of those therapies. Senate Finance Committee Chairman Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) called for an FDA commissioner “who can be totally dedicated to the job.” Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass) noted the “immense challenge” in managing either FDA or NCI and that was “unfair to the nation” for one person to attempt to run both.
Von Eschenbach officially remains director of NCI, a position he wants to retain because HHS secretary Mike Leavitt has indicated that the acting commissioner will not be named to take the reins at FDA permanently. But, he has moved his office to the FDA Parklawn building and said in his memo to FDA personnel that he is “now devoting my energies to the work of FDA in protecting and advancing the health of the American people.”