As clock ticks, Trump will nominate Stephen Hahn as FDA commissioner next week — report
Stephen Hahn is set to be nominated as the next FDA commissioner next week, the Wall Street Journal has reported.
With the clock ticking toward the November 1 deadline, President Donald Trump is cutting it close. But Hahn, the chief medical executive at Houston’s MD Anderson Cancer Center, has emerged as the frontrunner to fill Scott Gottlieb’s seat — which Ned Sharpless has been serving in an interim capacity — as early as September. From previous reports, it appeared that Hahn was just one FBI background check away from the nomination.
In doing so Trump and his HHS secretary, Alex Azar, is going against the opinion of several patient advocacy groups, four other former agency leaders as well as Gottlieb himself, after they came out in support of Sharpless in letters and tweets.
As acting commissioner, the National Cancer Institute director preached continuity rather than change, vowing to uphold the rigorous regulatory standards he inherited from Gottlieb while stepping the gas on assessments of new treatments.
In a speech to the NORD Conference on Rare Diseases earlier this week, Sharpless said that his time in federal service, be that at the NCI or FDA, has taught him that these agencies “are not tasked with making life better for some Americans, or most Americans, but for ALL Americans.”
“Therefore, we have the duty to find new and better ways of approaching the challenge of rare diseases,” he said. “We cannot leave any patient behind, which means we cannot leave research into any disease behind.”
The most high profile controversy during his tenure has nothing to do with drugs, or food for that matter. Rather, he presided over an eruption of scandals related to vaping as politicians questioned why the FDA didn’t start regulating e-cigarettes earlier and deaths tied to THC contaminants in these products triggered a nationwide panic.
Hahn will have to hit the ground running on the issue — pending a Senate confirmation. Despite not having any political background (other than being a longtime Republican donor), he’s been credited for leading institutions out of difficult situations. One of the most telling episodes took place just a few years ago at MD Anderson, where sounded the alarm on steep financial losses at the cancer center. After the then-president, Ron Depinho, resigned amid a divisive tenure, Hahn found himself in the spotlight as the bridge between administrators, faculty, and the outside world looking on with great expectation. That was March 2017, and Hahn, who came to MD Anderson originally to lead the radiation oncology division, had just been tapped as COO a month prior.
At that point, two years into his MD Anderson career, he had apparently built up rapport with staff. Julie Izzo, chair of the faculty senate, praised him for understanding what it’s like to be on the front lines and for walking the walk: “If he says he’s going to do something, he does it,” she said to the Houston Chronicle.
Hahn oversaw day-to-day operations during the transition and played a role in ultimately turning the finances around before current president Peter Pisters took charge in December.
Before that there’s the time when he rebuilt a quality review process at the University of Pennsylvania’s radiation oncology department after a doctor was allegedly found to have improperly planted radioactive seeds in prostate cancer patients.
“Clearly, you don’t work in these difficult academic environments without having a lot of political savvy,” Karen Bird, the executive director of the Alliance of Dedicated Cancer Centers, told STAT. “It’s not a straightforward job at all. Academic medical centers have lots of stakeholders within them, and you’ve got lots of people with very large egos.”