WASHINGTON — Dr. Norman E. (Ned) Sharpless, director of the National Cancer Institute, will serve as acting commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, Alex M. Azar III, secretary of health and human services, announced on Tuesday.
Dr. Sharpless temporarily will fill the post being vacated by Dr. Scott Gottlieb, who stunned public health experts, lawmakers and consumer groups last week when he abruptly announced that he was resigning for personal reasons.
Dr. Sharpless has been director of the cancer center, part of the National Institutes of Health, since October 2017. He is also chief of the aging biology and cancer section in the National Institute on Aging’s Laboratory of Genetics and Genomics. His research focuses on the relationship between aging and cancer, and development of new treatments for melanoma, lung cancer and breast cancer.
“Dr. Sharpless’s deep scientific background and expertise will make him a strong leader for F.D.A.,” said Mr. Azar, in a statement. “There will be no let up in the agency’s focus, from ongoing efforts on drug approvals and combating the opioid crisis to modernizing food safety and addressing the rapid rise in youth use of e-cigarettes.”
Like many previous F.D.A. commissioners, Dr. Sharpless, 52, has had a long career as an academic. Before his appointment to the cancer institute, he had served as director of the University of North Carolina Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center, a position he held since 2014.
Dr. Sharpless attended medical school at the University of North Carolina, and did his residency at Massachusetts General Hospital, followed by a fellowship at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. He first became a professor at the University of North Carolina’s medical school in 2002. In addition to his academic work, and his more recent job at the cancer center, Dr. Sharpless is a founder of G1 Therapeutics, a publicly traded biotechnology company that is a developer of cancer treatments. He divested all stocks from the company when he became director of the cancer institute, according to Jeff Macdonald, a spokesman for the company.
He will begin the job in early April, Mr. Azar said, after the departure of Dr. Gottlieb, who has been commissioner since May 2017.
Although Dr. Sharpless has been previously mentioned as a possible successor to Dr. Gottlieb, Mr. Azar said this is a temporary appointment and that the search for a permanent commissioner is underway. A successor must be nominated by President Trump and confirmed by the Senate.
Dr. Gottlieb said he supported the appointment.
He also said some members of the F.D.A. were already acquainted with their new boss, who had joined them on the basketball court for weekly games.
Dr. Gottlieb’s boldest action has been his crackdown on youth vaping, for which he blamed the e-cigarette industry. Dr. Sharpless has already signaled support for the move.
In a statement issued on Tuesday, Dr. Sharpless said, “It will be an honor to advance the F.D.A.’s critical public health mission.”
But it is unclear whether an acting commissioner would be able to press ahead on the more contentious fronts related to tobacco: the F.D.A.’s long-term proposals to reduce the level of nicotine in traditional cigarettes; tightening regulations on all e-cigarettes and other smoking alternatives; and pursuing a ban on menthol cigarettes. Many of the tougher restrictions face considerable opposition from Congress and the tobacco industry.
Ellen Sigal, founder of Friends of Cancer Research, praised the appointment.
“We have no doubt that Dr. Sharpless will continue to navigate and direct the F.D.A. in a manner that best benefits patients,” she said in an email.
In a November 2018 post on the cancer center website, Dr. Sharpless said that funding for the institute had grown, but that the number of excellent ideas for important research had grown even faster.
“In many ways, we are still just scratching the surface of our knowledge of cancer, how it begins, how tumors interact with the immune system and other elements of their microenvironment, how to overcome treatment resistance, and a host of other critical questions,” he wrote.