National Cancer Institute Director Norman “Ned” Sharpless will become acting commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said 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. He will succeed Scott Gottlieb, who announced his resignation last week and with whom he has a cordial relationship. Gottlieb supported his appointment.
Azar announced Sharpless’ naming at a hearing before the House Energy and Commerce Committee’s health subcommittee.
“We are going to be carrying forward Dr. Gottlieb’s vision,” Azar said. “His agenda is my agenda. My agenda is his agenda.”
Gottlieb surprised patient groups, health companies and members of Congress last week by saying he is resigning to spend more time with his wife and three young children, who live in Connecticut.
Sharpless is expected to start at the FDA within weeks. The administration has started a search for a permanent replacement to Gottlieb, and it’s possible Sharpless will be considered. As a presidential appointee, he already has been extensively vetted and has divested himself of financial holdings that could pose conflicts of interest. He has not been confirmed, because the NCI job doesn’t require that.
Sharpless is not registered with any party, but he has contributed to a number of Democratic candidates, including a total of $750 to Barack Obama’s 2008 and 2012 presidential campaigns, according to Federal Election Commission records.
In his relatively short tenure at the cancer institute, Sharpless pushed for increased data sharing and analysis to develop new treatments for cancer. He also pressed to modernize clinical trials and worked to increase funding for academic investigators around the country, even when that required cutting internal programs. He has co-founded two early-stage biotech companies: G1 Therapeutics, which develops cancer drugs, and HealthSpan Diagnostics, a developer of blood tests.
Sharpless was director of the University of North Carolina’s Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center before getting the top job at NCI, which is part of the National Institutes of Health. 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,” said Ellen Sigal, chairwoman of the advocacy group Friends of Cancer Research.
Azar also announced that Douglas Lowy, the cancer institute’s deputy director, will serve as acting director of the NCI — a post he also held during the Obama administration. Lowy is known for award-winning research that led to the development of a vaccine for the human papillomavirus, which causes cervical, anal, throat and other cancers.
Sharpless said in an interview with The Washington Post last year that his frustration with inadequate cancer treatments helped fuel his interest in basic research. He became a geneticist and molecular biologist, focusing on cell division and aging. A native of Greensboro, N.C., he attended the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill as an undergraduate and as a medical student.