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Not Too Soon to Consider the Hamburg Legacy

May 18 marked one year since Dr. Margaret Hamburg was sworn in as Commissioner of the US Food and Drug Administration. The challenges are great, the torrent of issues is never-ending and most days you can smile but you can’t win. Nonetheless, I think it has been a very good first year for her and for Principal Deputy Commissioner, Dr. Joshua Sharfstein.

It may seem premature to be discussing “the Hamburg legacy.” But you know that she is thinking about it (all commissioners do), so why can’t FDA Matters talk about it?

Top-line: the agency has a renewed energy and sense of purpose, which I attribute to her leadership. She has been aided by something none of her recent predecessors have had: the flow of new monies. This has allowed her to make choices about priorities and invest time and manpower into them.

Dr. Hamburg’s most important legacy will be whether she can sustain this momentum. FDA is still severely under-resourced. The FDA commissioner who can reverse this trend for more than a few years will always be remembered for that.

Improving regulatory sciences is apparently quite high on Dr. Hamburg’s list and I have written favorably about it a number of times. I also know that a lot of FDA-watchers are puzzled by it. Here is FDA Matter’s explanation:

“Regulatory sciences” means the tools, techniques and knowledge needed by food and medical product regulators to carry out their public responsibilities. Fundamental to the concept is that consumers, patients and regulated industries benefit when regulators have sophisticated, state-of-the art capabilities and use them transparently so that no stakeholder has to guess about the agency’s approach.

“Regulatory science” is most often thought of in relation to medical product approvals and food safety, but actually extends to every aspect of the FDA’s responsibilities, including manufacturing, product tracking, laboratory procedures, post-market standards, sentinel monitoring, etc.

Accomplishing this—even getting it firmly launched—is a legacy item. We will all benefit if she succeeds…and we will certainly remember her for it.

A third area emerging as a legacy item is a new FDA toughness on enforcement. At one point, I had thought that this was a threshold item: Congress wouldn’t let Dr. Hamburg address her other priorities unless she proved that she could assure the safety of medical products and food. That may even be how she thought of it a year ago.

This mission turned out to be more than just eliminating some marginal players and confirming that the mainstream regulated industries were playing by the rules. The past year, we have seen a number of established, name-brand companies held accountable for lapses that should not—by their own admission—have occurred.

One important consequence of inspections and enforcement is to keep everyone on their toes. Maybe CEO’s of FDA-regulated companies are not asking tough enough questions or don’t appreciate how much the company can be hurt by people many levels below them. If the behavior of mainstream industry is markedly improved and the agency is clearer and more predictable in its standards and enforcement actions, then this would be a powerful legacy for Commissioner Hamburg.

With a year in office, it’s not too soon to discuss Dr. Hamburg’s potential legacy. What do you think of my list? What would you add? Please post your comments or send them to me at sgrossman@fdamatters.com


Some previous columns that touch on each of these legacy items:

FDA: A Bargain at Two Cents Per Day Per American

March 28th, 2010

FDA touches every American many times each day. Today’s investment (2 cents per day per American) is a pittance compared to the benefit of a strong FDA and the risk of an underfunded FDA. There cannot be many agencies in the US government that have such a vast scope of responsibilities and so few dollars to get the job done.

This is the powerful message that the Alliance for a Stronger FDA has been delivering to Capitol Hill. Even still, it will be a difficult year for any federal agency whose mission and responsibilities are growing. Read the rest of this entry »

CARS: The Vehicle for FDA’s Future

October 25th, 2009

Since Labor Day, Commissioner Hamburg has spoken a number of times about the importance of regulatory science. She is right. FDA must have the scientific tools and methodologies to be a 21st century regulatory agency. FDA needs to define regulatory science, develop programs to support it, and package them in a way that will quickly bring recognition and funding. Read the rest of this entry »

Shaken to the Core: What FDA and FDA-Regulated Companies Can Learn from Toyota

February 25th, 2010

I do not believe that Toyota became a global success by cutting corners and ignoring safety concerns. Nonetheless, the company may not survive the investigations, the lawsuits, the civil and criminal fines, the securities litigation, the recalls (8.5 million cars so far), the loss of consumer confidence and the possible criminal indictments.

FDA Matters hopes that the CEO’s of FDA-regulated companies are paying attention. They need to understand that their company can be “shaken to the core,” as Toyota has. Read the rest of this entry »

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