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The New Blood at the FDA

Those wringing their hands about the state of science at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration can breathe a little easier, as things seem to be looking up. A well-respected oncologist and cancer biologist will be acting chief of the agency after current head Andrew von Eschenbach steps down next week. Filling the new post of chief scientist, Frank Torti came to FDA in May from Wake Forest University School of Medicine in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, where he headed up the cancer center. The agency created the chief scientist position at the urging of the Institute of Medicine, which had expressed concerns about FDA’s research capacity and handling of scientific issues.

It's unknown whether Torti is a candidate for the permanent spot. But for the time being, scientists will be cheered by the selection of the new boss. In his brief time at FDA, Torti has created a new fellowship program for physicians and scientists, and reportedly was a driving force behind the review of the safety of bisphenol-A (BPA) in plastics. It’s not clear how much headway Torti has made on the culture of science at FDA, where reviewers have complained that their concerns about drug and device safety are often squelched.

“He’s very forward-thinking and strategic,” and “very close to the practice of both medicine and basic science,” which should serve him well as acting commissioner, says Barbara McNeil, who chairs FDA’s Science board and is a physician and health care policy expert at Harvard. She’s particularly pleased that Torti is “making efforts to make sure that there is a lot of external input from outside FDA” to help the agency prioritize what to tackle next.