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MD Anderson cancer doctor emerges as a top candidate for FDA job

Stephen Hahn, a radiation oncologist, has served as a senior leader at Texas cancer center.

The White House is considering nominating a senior official at MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston to serve as commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, now led by acting head Norman E. "Ned" Sharpless. (Andrew Harnik/AP)

Stephen Hahn, a senior official at MD Anderson Cancer Center, is being considered for the top job at the Food and Drug Administration, according to people familiar with the discussions.

Hahn, a radiation oncologist and researcher, met with President Trump on Wednesday to discuss being nominated as commissioner of the agency.

An administration official said that Trump has not made a final decision on the FDA job, but that Hahn “is a strong candidate.” He has emerged as the chief rival to Norman “Ned” Sharpless, who was tapped as acting FDA chief after Commissioner Scott Gottlieb resigned in March. Sharpless previously was director of the National Cancer Institute and the UNC Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center in Chapel Hill, N.C. He can serve as acting commissioner only until Nov. 1.

The administration also has considered a third candidate, Alexa Boer Kimball, a Harvard dermatology professor and president and chief executive of the Harvard Medical Faculty Physicians at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston. The Wall Street Journal first reported that Hahn was being considered for the FDA job.

Being commissioner of the FDA — an agency with sprawling responsibilities that include food safety, drug approvals and tobacco regulation — has long been a tough job. But the post is especially challenging now amid pressing concerns about high drug prices, the explosion of youth vaping and medical-device safety.

Hahn is chief medical executive at MD Anderson in Houston, and is responsible for overseeing patient care. He worked at the NCI from the late 1980s until the mid-1990s, at one point in the prostate-cancer clinic, before moving to the University of Pennsylvania and eventually becoming chairman of the radiation oncology department. After almost two decades at Penn, he joined MD Anderson, and three years later, in 2017, became chief operating officer during a tumultuous time that culminated in the resignation of then-President Ronald DePinho.

Justin Bekelman, a Penn radiation oncologist who worked for Hahn, described him as “a terrific leader and a first-rate person who puts patients first.” He also said Hahn was “an impeccable researcher,” whose clinical trial work has included innovative therapies combining immunotherapy and radiation.

The MD Anderson website describes Hahn as having expertise in lung cancer and sarcoma, an uncommon group of cancers that arise in the bones and connective tissue. It adds that his research “focuses on the molecular causes of the tumor microenvironment, particularly the study of chemical signals that go awry."

Sharpless also has strong supporters to become the permanent FDA head. Earlier this week, dozens of cancer groups and four previous FDA commissioners endorsed him, calling on Trump and Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar to quickly nominate him.

The former commissioners’ letter said Sharpless “has gained the respect of the agency staff and a broad spectrum of the public in support of the FDA’s mission.” It was signed by Mark McClellan and Andrew von Eschenbach, who led the agency during the George W. Bush administration, and Robert Califf and Margaret Hamburg, who served during the Obama administration.

Gottlieb has also said he supports Sharpless’s nomination and confirmation. Sharpless supporters say it would be disruptive to install yet another FDA chief and stress his research and drug-development credentials.

In June, in a live “Chasing Cancer” event at The Washington Post, Sharpless said he was committed to speeding drug discovery and lowering costs, in part by harnessing big data.

He also said he would like to be nominated to be permanent commissioner. “You know, I learned all the acronyms, right?” he said. He called the agency “a great place to be involved with,” but added that the White House would decide who got the nod for the top job.

In an email Thursday, Hahn declined to comment. The FDA also declined to comment.

Ashley Parker contributed to this report.

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