By Lisa Seachrist
WASHINGTON — In a voice vote just before adjourning for the year, the Senate confirmed Jane Henney as the new FDA commissioner.
With the confirmation, the FDA will have its first permanent chief since David Kessler left the post in February 1997 to head the Yale University Medical School, in New Haven, Conn.
The vote took place around 2 p.m., as Senate members wrapped up business before heading back to their states for campaign activities. Earlier in the day, a bundle of nominees had been voted on, but Henney's nomination was brought to the floor alone.
Sensing that the nomination remained controversial, Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) brought the nomination to the floor, indicating that he wanted to get the vote done before anyone else objected to the nominee.
Two weeks ago, a group of senators led by Majority Whip Don Nickles (R-Okla.) blocked Henney's nomination over perceptions that the University of New Mexico administrator would blur the lines separating the legislative and executive branches. Nickles withdrew his objections on Tuesday.
"This was excellent news," said Carl Feldbaum, president of the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO). "It was a chaotic way to end the term, but it was the right outcome. [Henney] is highly qualified and the agency needs a permanent commissioner."
Last week, BIO endorsed Henney in a letter to Lott, citing the need for the agency to have a permanent head in order to fight the appropriations battles to ensure that the agency is granted enough funding to carry out its regulatory duties.
While not offering an endorsement to the nominee prior to confirmation, the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA) concurred with BIO's position.
"Permanent leadership will be good for the FDA, good for the regulated industry and, most important, good for patients," Alan Holmer, PhRMA's president, said in a written statement. "We look forward to working the Dr. Henney as she rises to the next challenge in an already distinguished career. We are encouraged by her testimony that she intends to uphold both the letter and the spirit of the Food and Drug Administration Modernization Act."
Henney will leave her post as the vice president for health sciences at the University of New Mexico, in Albuquerque, to return to the agency. Previously, Henney, an oncologist, served two years as deputy commissioner for operations at the FDA. Henney received her medical training at the Indiana University School of Medicine, in Indianapolis, and her oncology training at M.D. Anderson Hospital and Tumor Institute, in Houston.
She has also served as deputy director of the National Cancer Institute and vice chancellor for programs and policy at the University of Kansas Medical Center, in Kansas City. Currently, Henney serves on the National Institutes of Health (NIH) advisory committee to the director as well as NIH's biotechnology committee. *