updated 3/15/2006 2:56:17 PM ET 2006-03-15T19:56:17

President Bush plans to nominate Andrew von Eschenbach as commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, the regulatory agency that the urology surgeon has led on an acting basis since September, a government official said Wednesday.

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As part of the move, von Eschenbach likely will step down as director of the National Cancer Institute, which he has led since 2002, the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because the announcement had not yet been made.

Calls to von Eschenbach’s offices at the FDA and NCI were transferred to the press offices of the respective agencies. He did not immediately return e-mails seeking comment. A message left for a White House spokeswoman was not immediately returned.

Von Eschenbach would become the third FDA commissioner since Bush entered office in 2001. The last permanent commissioner, Lester Crawford, abruptly resigned in September two months after his confirmation.

Von Eschenbach served as chief academic officer of the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston before he left to take over the NCI. The Philadelphia native has survived three cancer diagnoses: melanoma, prostate cancer and basal cell carcinoma.

Too cozy with drug industry?
His nomination will require Senate confirmation, a process likely to give lawmakers a chance to air a litany of complaints about the agency. Those include the FDA’s delaying of plans to allow over-the-counter sales of the Plan B emergency contraceptive pill, concerns about the safety of prescription drugs like Vioxx and allegations of a too-cozy relationship with the pharmaceutical industry.

“For the majority of President Bush’s time in office the FDA has been without a permanent commissioner, which has adversely affected the agency’s ability to protect the American people from dangerous drugs. While I am pleased to see the president take the step toward having a full-time commissioner, we need to learn a lot more from Dr. von Eschenbach about what kind of relationship he envisions the FDA having with the drug industry,” Rep. Maurice Hinchey, D-N.Y., said in a statement.

Hinchey and other lawmakers have pushed for Bush to name a permanent head to the FDA.

In a letter Monday to Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt, Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, wrote that in the last few years “there has been an undeniable absence of strong leadership at the FDA.”

The agency, which is part of HHS, oversees the regulation of medical devices and more than $1 trillion of food, drugs, cosmetics, animal feed and other products, which account for 25 cents of every dollar spent each year by Americans.

At the request of lawmakers, the HHS inspector general continues to investigate whether Crawford followed ethics laws requiring that he report his financial assets and income to the government. A month before the former commissioner resigned, Crawford sold more than $50,000 in shares in a company that makes medical devices, according to financial disclosure forms obtained by The Associated Press under the Freedom of Information Act.

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