|Papers of Pioneering Cancer Researcher, NIH Director,
and Nobel Laureate Harold Varmus Added to the National Library of
Medicine’s Profiles in Science Website
The National Library of Medicine, a part of the National Institutes
of Health, announces the release of an extensive selection from
the papers of molecular biologist and science administrator, Harold
Varmus, on its Profiles in Science website at http://www.profiles.nlm.nih.gov.
The Library has collaborated with the University of California,
San Francisco Archives and Special Collections to digitize his
papers and make them widely available. This brings to 20 the number
of notable scientists who have personal and professional records
included in Profiles.
With his long time collaborator, J. Michael Bishop, Varmus developed
a new theory of the origin of cancer, which holds that the disease
arises from mutations in certain of our own normal genes. These
mutations are triggered by environmental carcinogens or by naturally
occurring errors in the course of cell division and DNA replication.
“Varmus and Bishop’s discovery gave a brilliant new insight into
the genetic basis of cancer, of cell growth and differentiation,
and of evolution,” says Donald A.B. Lindberg, M.D., Director of
the National Library of Medicine.
The two scientists found that genes in cancer-causing retroviruses
are closely related to genes in normal, non-cancerous cells of
many different organisms. These normal cellular genes have been
preserved over one billion years of evolution and play a key role
in controlling cell division and differentiation. Yet, under particular
conditions — for example, events during cell division or
the rearrangement of chromosomes, as well as external influences
like viruses, cigarette smoke, and radiation — they can accumulate
mutations that prompt the cell to divide indefinitely, the hallmark
The surprising discovery that cancer-causing genes, or oncogenes,
are versions of normal cellular genes suggests a common molecular
mechanism for the many different types of cancer. It also explains
why cancer is most often a disease of old age and accounts for
individual differences in the response to carcinogens.
In 1989, Varmus and Bishop shared the Nobel Prize in Physiology
or Medicine “for their discovery of the cellular origin of retroviral
Harold Eliot Varmus was born December 18, 1939, in Oceanside,
New York. His first intellectual passion was not science, but English
literature, in which he earned an A.B. degree (Amherst College,
where he was newspaper editor) and M.A. degree (Harvard University — where
his work focused on Anglo-Saxon poetry and metaphysical poetry).
He considered an academic career in literature, but was deterred,
as he said, by the thought that as an English professor his students
would likely feel relief if he failed to show up for a lecture,
whereas as a physician his patients would be upset if he cancelled
an appointment. He earned his M.D. from the College of Physicians
and Surgeons at Columbia University in 1966. After reading Jacque
Monod and Francois Jacob’s seminal papers on gene control in bacteria,
he knew that his future lay in basic research.
Varmus began his extended collaboration with Bishop in 1970 at
the University of California at San Francisco, where over the next
decade the two showed that normal cells carried within them the
seeds of cancer in the form of genes they called proto-oncogenes.
As an expert on retroviruses, Varmus during the 1980s became involved
in research on the retrovirus that was causing the new and frightening
epidemic of AIDS. He chaired the scientific advisory committee
that in 1986 proposed the name human immunodeficiency virus (HIV)
for the etiologic agent of AIDS.
In 1993, President Clinton nominated Varmus as Director of the
National Institutes of Health (NIH) where he was a familiar figure
on his bicycle as he regularly pedaled between home and office.
The first Nobel laureate to head NIH, Varmus strengthened the institution’s
commitment to basic research while negotiating political controversies
over AIDS and stem cell research. In January 2000 he became president
and director of the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New
The online exhibition features correspondence, laboratory and
lecture notes, research proposals, published articles, and photographs
from the Harold Varmus papers at the University of California,
San Francisco. Visitors to the site can view, for example, Varmus’s
schematic depictions of gene control in birds, an extensive exchange
of letters regarding the naming of HIV, and a photograph of Varmus
receiving the Montgomery County (Md.) bicyclist of the year award.
Located in Bethesda, Maryland, the National Library of Medicine
is the world’s largest library of the health sciences. For more
information, visit the website at www.nlm.nih.gov.
The National Institutes of Health (NIH) — The Nation's
Medical Research Agency — includes 27 Institutes and
Centers and is a component of the U.S. Department of Health and
Human Services. It is the primary federal agency for conducting
and supporting basic, clinical and translational medical research,
and it investigates the causes, treatments, and cures for both
common and rare diseases. For more information about NIH and
its programs, visit www.nih.gov.