A top MD Anderson Cancer Center official has emerged as the frontrunner to be the next FDA commissioner following a meeting this week with President Donald Trump, multiple sources with knowledge of the process told POLITICO.
Stephen Hahn, a radiation oncologist and chief medical executive at MD Anderson in Houston, is in line to be nominated to head the agency within the next several weeks, pending completion of a successful background check.
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The Trump administration is facing a Nov. 1 deadline for nominating a permanent commissioner. Hahn had been considered alongside acting FDA chief Norman “Ned” Sharpless and Harvard professor Alexa Boer Kimball.
The White House and HHS did not immediately respond to a request for comment, and the sources with knowledge of the process cautioned that Trump could still change his mind.
But Hahn is considered the consensus choice within both HHS and the White House, those sources said. He is also the only one of the finalists to meet with Trump, according to one person with knowledge of the process.
A well-regarded cancer specialist, Hahn chaired the radiation oncology department at the University of Pennsylvania’s medical school for nine years before joining MD Anderson Cancer Center.
He was quickly added to the center’s executive ranks, rising to chief medical executive in 2018. Administration officials view such leadership experience as crucial to running a sprawling agency responsible for a wide array of initiatives in food and drug safety, tobacco regulation and other areas.
Hahn is also a longtime GOP donor, according to Federal Election Commission records, having contributed to Republican presidential campaigns dating at least as far back to George W. Bush’s 2004 presidential run.
And unlike some past FDA commissioners, he has accepted relatively little money from the drug and medical device industries. According to CMS’ Open Payments database, which tracks industry contributions to doctors, Hahn received roughly $1,000 in travel and lodging fees from radiation oncology device company Varian Medical Systems in 2017.
Those qualities helped boost Hahn’s candidacy, sources said, as administration officials sought a pick who could quickly clear the Senate confirmation process.
Though Sharpless — who previously headed the National Cancer Institute — is well-liked within the FDA and had won praise from former Commissioner Scott Gottlieb, several other former FDA chiefs and health groups, administration officials raised concerns about how he would fare under Senate scrutiny.
Sharpless had previously donated to several Democratic campaigns, including both of Barack Obama’s presidential runs and to the opponents of current North Carolina GOP Sens. Thom Tillis and Richard Burr.
Burr sits on the Senate HELP Committee responsible for considering FDA nominees.
It also remained unclear how Sharpless would approach tobacco regulation — a hotly contested area that had previously pitted Burr and some other Republicans against Gottlieb’s efforts to crack down on menthol and flavored tobacco products.
Senate Democrats, meanwhile, have criticized the FDA under Sharpless over its approach to e-cigarette regulation — scrutiny that’s intensified in recent weeks amid the spread of a mystery vaping illness that’s largely affected teens.