Friday, December 08, 2006

Senate approves Bush pick to lead FDA

Senate approves Bush pick to lead FDA
By Julie Vorman

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Senate on Thursday overwhelmingly approved the nomination of cancer expert Dr. Andrew von Eschenbach to run the Food and Drug Administration, despite objections from several Republican senators.

The urology surgeon and oncologist has served as acting FDA chief since September 2005. He was nominated earlier this year by President George W. Bush to take the job permanently.

The FDA regulates medicines, medical devices, most foods and other products that sustain about a quarter of the U.S. economy. The agency has lacked a permanent leader for all but 18 months of Bush's nearly six years in office.

Von Eschenbach was approved on a vote of 80-11.

His nomination faced numerous political hurdles in the Senate.

One critic, Republican Charles Grassley of Iowa, tried to block a Senate vote because he said the FDA failed to fully comply with congressional subpoenas seeking information about the Sanofi-Aventis antibiotic Ketek amid reports of liver failure.

"This nominee is an illustration of the lack of cooperation on the part of the executive branch with Congress on the issue of congressional oversight," Grassley said. "People ought to be ashamed of saying Dr. Andrew von Eschenbach has done a superb job in the position he is currently occupying."

Republican Jim DeMint of South Carolina also opposed the nomination, citing concerns about the safety of the abortion pill known as RU-486 or Mifeprex.

A third Republican, David Vitter of Louisiana, objected over the Bush administration's opposition to prescription drug importation. Vitter forecast during the floor debate that Congress would approve legislation in 2007 to allow prescription drugs to be reimported from Canada, where they are typically much cheaper.

"We will, in fact, win on this issue in the near-future," he said.

Republican Mike Enzi of Wyoming, defended the nominee, saying, "I think it will be different when he has full authority."

Enzi praised von Eschenbach as "a man with a vision" and a cancer survivor with compassion for others.

"This man could serve patients in many different ways and offered to serve them by running this agency," said Enzi, chairman of the Senate Health Committee.

Industry and patient groups alike have said the FDA must have a permanent leader to help shuttle the agency through controversial issues such as drug safety oversight, agency funding and generic alternatives to expensive biotech drugs.

Von Eschenbach, 65, was diagnosed and treated for melanoma, a dangerous form of skin cancer in the late 1980s while chairman of urology at the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston. He also has been treated for prostate cancer.

Before coming to the FDA, von Eschenbach headed the National Cancer Institute.

Some critics have expressed concern his previous work promoting cancer treatments could cloud his judgment about what treatments are safe.

Bush's previous nominee, Lester Crawford, also faced a tough confirmation battle last year only to abruptly resign. He pleaded guilty last month to charges related to his stock ownership in companies regulated by the FDA.

Democrats Hillary Clinton of New York and Patty Murray of Washington previously blocked a vote on von Eschenbach's nomination, but withdrew their protests after the FDA approved access to emergency contraception without a doctor's prescription.