Senate panel advances nomination of Dr. Stephen Hahn to head FDA

President Donald Trump’s nominee to be the next commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, Dr. Stephen Hahn, was just cleared by a Senate committee and will soon face a confirmation vote by the full Senate, which he will likely pass, The Washington Post reported.

Hahn, a radiation oncology specialist in Texas and chief medical executive at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, received a bipartisan vote of 18–5 in his favor from the Republican-controlled Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee on Tuesday.

If confirmed in a full Senate vote, which should occur before the year is out, Hahn will become the fourth head of the FDA in 2019. He would replace Trump’s first FDA commissioner Scott Gottlieb, who stepped down in April and was replaced by two successive acting commissioners, Norman Sharpless and then Brett Giroir, of the National Cancer Institute and Department of Health and Human Services, respectively.

Noncommital on vaping

Committee Chairman Lamar Alexander (R-TN), citing Hahn’s experience in management and research, said he was “exactly the type of nominee” that was needed at the helm of the FDA at this point in time.

The Post noted that Democrat opposition to Hahn, led by ranking member Patty Murray (D-WA), was largely due to his refusal to commit during confirmation hearings to backing a strong policy that would ban flavored e-cigarette and vaping products, which have been the center of controversy in recent months.

Though Hahn expressed his concern over the use of such products by minors, he said he looked “forward to hearing all of the data associated with this as a scientist and a researcher and a doctor. Seeing all the data and the complete set of data is important” before making a final decision and taking action on the matter, he noted, according to Marketwatch.

Opioid and cannabis regulation

Of course, the FDA is concerned with far more than just the current vaping “crisis” that has gripped the media and politicians, and Hahn had a chance to deliver his thoughts on other matters of importance during his confirmation hearing, Marketwatch noted.

With respect to the devastating opioid crisis, Hahn said he would call for a more “comprehensive holistic approach” to pain management that would include pushing approvals of non-opioid alternatives such as certain drugs, behavioral therapies, and medical devices. “We have to balance the relief of suffering with preventing as much as possible misuse and addiction,” he said.

Along those lines, when asked about the potential medicinal use of cannabis — which remains illegal at the federal level, making adequate research difficult — Hahn said “there is a pathway for medical products” derived from cannabis, “but there are some open, unanswered questions that have to be filled by research.”

Modernizing the FDA

Some of Hahn’s critics pointed out that, unlike his predecessors at the FDA — five of whom have come out in his support — he has very little prior experience working in government. But Hahn said he believed his experience running academic medical centers would transfer to running a federal agency, in that both were “big complex, public-health-driven, research-driven organizations” of a similar size and with a similar number of employees to be managed.

As for the FDA itself, Hahn indicated that he would like to find innovative and expeditious ways to approve new products while still upholding prior standards, and said, “In the new era where science is moving so quickly, the agency should be more efficient, and we should have more agility.”

Hopefully, there will be little delay in holding the full floor vote on Hahn’s confirmation so that he can quickly assume his new role as head of the FDA and begin to do what needs to be done at what is unquestionably a key federal agency.

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