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By Julie Steenhuysen
March 12 (Reuters) - U.S. President Donald Trump's administration has tapped National Cancer Institute Director Norman Sharpless to serve as acting commissioner for the Food and Drug Administration, following the resignation of Scott Gottlieb earlier this month.
Sharpless, who has led the National Institutes of Health's cancer unit since 2017, will take over following Gottlieb's exit in April, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services said on Tuesday.
Cancer experts and advocates praised the appointment of Sharpless as acting FDA chief after Gottlieb's abrupt resignation earlier this month.
"We have no doubt that Dr. Sharpless will continue to navigate and direct the FDA in a manner that best benefits patients, and we look forward to executing critical work with him in his new role," Ellen Sigal, founder and chair of Friends of Cancer Research, said in a statement.
The search for a permanent FDA chief is still under way.
As director of the National Cancer Institute, Sharpless directed the largest division within the National Institutes of Health. He previously served as director of the UNC Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center, where he was a practicing oncologist specializing in leukemia.
Dr. Shelley Earp, UNC Lineberger’s current director and a long-time colleague, said he was not surprised by Sharpless' appointment. "He's one of the most talented people I have ever known. He has the gift of being able to speak to people from all walks of life, including Congress, and explain complicated things pretty easily."
"Part of me is a little sad he's leaving NCI because he was doing a spectacular job there," Earp said. "His talent is such that I guess he was needed in other areas."
Dr. Doug Lowy, the deputy director at NCI, will take over as acting director.
Gottlieb said on Twitter that he was "delighted" with the selection of Sharpless as acting FDA commissioner, adding that FDA will "benefit greatly from his leadership."
Gottlieb's departure has raised questions about how the agency would regulate e-cigarettes and tackle drug competition following his tenure, which was generally lauded by public health advocates as well as both Republicans and Democrats.
Lisa Lacasse, president of the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network, said it will be "vital" that Sharpless continue to advance policies backed by Gottlieb aimed at cutting the soaring rates of youth tobacco use, especially e-cigarettes.
Anti-regulation groups and some industry groups, however, raised objections to his efforts, which ran counter to the administration's goal of easing government regulations.
Shares of Altria Group Inc and British American Tobacco Plc both edged lower amid a jump in trading volume on news of the Sharpless appointment.
Altria, which makes Marlboro cigarettes and recently acquired a stake in e-cigarette startup Juul, fell 1 percent, while British American’s American depositary receipts were down by 0.25 percent. Both had climbed ahead of the announcement.
(Reporting by Julie Steenhuysen in Chicago; Additional reporting by Susan Heavey and Tim Ahmann in Washington and Dan Burns in New York; Editing by Bernadette Baum and Lisa Shumaker)