He has overseen the opening of three drug safety offices in China and faced an unresolved salmonella outbreak this past summer.
Dr. Andrew von Eschenbach plans to resign as commissioner from the troubled Food and Drug Administration (FDA) on January 20, the transition day for a new administration.
Who will succeed him is the question that will determine the direction of the agency and the priorities of the nation.
Barack Obama is considering candidates such as Baltimore’s Health Commissioner, Dr. Joshua Sharfstein, 39, a pediatrician who was the driving force behind questioning the safety of child cold medications.
Also on the list is as FDA head is Dr. Steven E. Nissen, 60, who is an outspoken critic of the pharmaceutical giants and their big-selling medications.
“This is a failed agency,” Dr. Nissen said in a recent interview to the Times, “and it has lost the public’s confidence.” He advocated greater transparency for the results of industry drug trials and said the process for approving medical devices needs an overhaul.
Expect the rapid approval of drugs under FDA scrutiny to slow down while safety takes a priority under new leadership.
Von Eschenbach, 67, a cancer survivor, previously was director of the National Cancer Institute before being appointed by President Bush to head the FDA in 2005.
Von Eschenbach has overseen a major increase in funding in the drug safety office and pushed to have the FDA offices opened in China after it was discovered that the foreign made heparin plant in China had never been inspected by FDA regulators.
Under von Eschenbach, the agency has gained congressional support for larger budgets to increase its increased responsibilities for foreign food and drug inspections.
"I am extremely proud of the progress we have made together," said Dr. von Eschenbach in his note to staff. "Resources are on a dramatic upward trajectory, and the gleaming new buildings and laboratories at our White Oak campus will make possible synergies and collaboration that were long beyond our reach."
The White Oak campus, in a Maryland suburb of Washington, D.C., will serve as the FDA's new headquarters and is being dedicated later this week, according to the Wall Street Journal.
Under von Eschenbach, tensions reportedly have eased between the drug safety office and the division that handles drug approvals, as well as lawmakers and critics who report they find Eschenbach easy to work with.
His departure will be joined by a parade of others in the nation’s public health agencies – part of a clean sweep by the new administration.
The New York Times reports that Elias Zerhouni has already left his post as director of the National Institutes of Health.
Dr. Julie Gerberding, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, plans to depart and Dr. John E. Niederhuber, director of the National Cancer Institute, is expected to surrender his leadership job.
The new appointments in these positions will determine the direction of the country in the areas of stem cell policies, the safety of imported drugs and food and planning for global influenza and bioterrorism. #