Commissioner of the FDA for five years starting in 1984, Frank Young relished his position “at the vortex of controversy” as he sought to deal with the AIDS crisis and public furor over drug tampering, said his son, Jonathan Young, co-founder and chief operating officer of South San Francisco-based Akero Therapeutics Inc.  

Post-FDA, Frank Young would help grapple with the opioid epidemic as well – a scourge that began with the passage of the Compassionate Pain Relief Act (CPRA), passed the year he was appointed. 

Young, 88, died Nov. 24 of B-cell lymphoma. 

His son recalled AIDS activists’ desperate, failed lawsuit against the FDA to make the agency put HIV therapies on the market faster. Young “went out to do what the Supreme Court said they did not have to do,” Jonathan told BioWorld. “Because there was some resistance in the agency about the precedent of approving drugs before the full process had been completed, he took it upon himself that those decisions would be made directly at the level of the commissioner.” Young took actions on 17 drugs that were ultimately cleared the conventional way, including azidothymidine, the HIV/AIDS therapy better known as AZT. Although first attacked by AIDS groups, Young in the end was embraced as their advocate, Jonathan said. “He wasn’t a guy who wanted to hover at the top. He liked to do the work,” knowing that he could save lives.  

When Young took the agency’s helm, Americans were still reeling from the 1982 murders of seven people who took Tylenol-branded capsules of acetaminophen that had been laced with potassium cyanide. Young put more aggressive inspection procedures in place. The murders have not been solved. Upon joining the turmoil-ridden FDA, Young was tasked with developing an action plan that would set things right. He did, and with a few years, 94% of the plan was well underway, and 74% of the measures he specified had been implemented, Jonathan said. 

More recently, at Braeburn Pharmaceuticals Inc., Young managed the marketing clearance of opioid-dependency therapy Probuphine (buprenorphine), green-lighted by U.S. regulators three and a half years ago. After the CPRA was ratified, “the use of prescription narcotics underwent exponential growth,” noted a 2015 paper in The Ochsner Journal. “Concurrently, death from unintentional overdose from prescribed as well as illicit use rose exponentially, and has now surpassed the rate of death by automobile accidents.” Jonathan said his prescient father “viewed the opioid crisis with every bit of the urgency as [he did] the AIDS crisis.” 

As a lad, Young had considered going into the ministry, Jonathan said. An advisor told him, “You know, what, Frank? Go into medicine. You’ll have more opportunity to minister to people [there].” And so medicine it was (though he did eventually gain his theology degree). Early on, Young distinguished himself as a pioneer in genetics and closing. He discovered the BAM H1 enzyme for deployment in cloning, one of three such enzymes. The first researcher to publish about the method (by way of a different enzyme) won the Nobel Prize, but it “actually ended up not being as useful” as BAM H1, Jonathan said.  

‘He did it all’ 

Young also served as dean of the of the School of Medicine and Dentistry at the University of Rochester in New York; as a venture capitalist; and as an associate pastor at Fourth Presbyterian Church in Bethesda, Md. “He had many mountains that he climbed, but first and foremost in his heart, he was deeply committed to his family,” said Jonathan, whose neck was broken in 1986 during a wrestling match at his high school in Maryland – a match attended by his father. “He wasn’t supposed to be there. He had a dinner reception [scheduled] with President Reagan at the White House,” but Young and his wife decided to attend the match instead. “I probably wouldn’t have survived, were he not there,” Jonathan said. 

Another son, Frank Jr., recalled that Young would leave FDA meetings to take his kids’ phone calls. “He’d always step out and say, ‘My son’s calling. That’s more important.’” In 2013, after residing for 29 years in Bethesda, “truly his home, his community,” Young pulled up stakes and moved to Wilmington, N.C., where he settled in order to take care of another daughter, Lorrie, born with an educational disability. Young and his wife have five children, 16 grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. 

His interest extended far down the family line. Young’s daughter Peggy spoke of his relationship with her daughter, who attended grad school in London. “The professors happened to go on strike shortly after she was enrolled – he was her mentor across the seas,” she said. “At her graduation, the first thing all of her friends said was, ‘Oh, this is Gramps! We knew anytime [she] was in tears and on the phone, she was talking to her Gramps.’” 

Young’s compassionate reach extended well beyond his gene pool. “As much as he loved to dream the impossible dream, he loved people and being of help to people,” Jonathan said. Frank Jr. recalled a scene at the University of Rochester swearing-in ceremony, Young’s late wife Leanne beside him. “It made me think of what the president does at an inauguration – have somebody [standing] next to the family. My dad chose two janitors.” They were the workers who cleaned his floors at the university; Young respectfully referred to them as “sanitation engineers.” 

At the hospital, days before he died, Jonathan said, Young “was counseling nurses about considering going into the public health corps,” while “encouraging and critiquing doctors about how they should be engaged in the hospital.” Peggy said he was relentlessly optimistic. “Not once did he utter a complaint. If they came in and told him what was going to happen next, he would say, ‘That’s great!’” After one procedure, which involved turning Young’s body to extract bone marrow from his spine, “we were all a little nervous because it seemed to take longer than we expected,” she said. Emerging on the stretcher, Young looked pleased and said, “Peggy, they rolled me on my stomach. I haven’t been on my stomach in 20 years.” 

Leanne was diagnosed with metastatic melanoma in April 2008 and died the following August, whisked from the family in a devastatingly quick period. “That crushed my father,” Jonathan said. “But he found a way through the grief.” This Young did by writing a book, Good Grief: Love's Final Gift, informed by his religious faith and published in 2011. “Leanne dying first did not even seem to be in the realm of possibility!” he wrote. “Her parents, aunts, and uncles lived into their late eighties and nineties, and Leanne had always been in good health. Haunted by the ghost of my father’s early demise, I inflicted the anxiety I had of my early death on my wife and children for years. I always assumed and planned that I would die first.” Young and Leanne were married for 51 years. 

Jonathan said any one of Young’s careers and a few of his many accomplishments would be enough for an ordinary person’s lifetime. “He did it all. That’s amazing to me.” Peggy agreed, but said that “with all of his accolades, to me he was just my dad. I’m going to miss my dad.” 

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