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Harold E. Varmus, M.D.
Director, National Institutes of Health, November 23, 1993 - December 31, 1999
Dr. Harold E. Varmus was nominated to become the 14th director of NIH by President William J. Clinton and was sworn in by HHS Secretary Donna Shalala on November 23, 1993. Winner of the Nobel Prize in 1989 for his work in cancer research (and the first Nobel Laureate to lead the NIH), his appointment was also notable for his lack of any prior administrative experience. Instead he was known at that time mainly for his scientific work at the University of California, San Francisco, where he had become a leader in the study of cancer-causing genes called "oncogenes" and an internationally recognized authority on retroviruses, the viruses that cause AIDS and many cancers in animals.
Prior to his appointment, he was professor of microbiology, biochemistry, and biophysics, and the American Cancer Society professor of molecular virology at UCSF, with an extensive history of interactions with the NIH. He had received his scientific training at an NIH Clinical Associate from 1968 to 1970 in the intramural laboratory of Dr. Ira Pastan, and during the next twenty–three years, he was a recipient of NIH career awards and grants, a member of an NIH Study Section, and a participant on NIH advisory committees.
Dr. Varmus and his UCSF colleague Dr. J. Michael Bishop shared the 1989 Nobel in Physiology or Medicine for demonstrating that cancer genes (oncogenes) can arise from normal cellular genes, called proto-oncogenes. While investigating a retroviral gene, v-src, responsible for the induction of sarcomas in chickens by Rous sarcoma virus, they discovered a cellular src gene, very similar to v-src, present in the normal cells of birds mammals, and all other animals. The c-src gene was the first example of cellular “proto-oncogenes” that can be activated by mutation to become cancer-causing genes; many of these genes are commonly mutated in human cancers and have become targets for new forms of cancer therapy.
Dr. Varmus’s scientific work before, during, and after his NIH Directorship has also included studies of retroviral replication; the development of mouse models of cancers; the discovery of the first mammalian Wnt genes; investigations of hepatitis B virus replication; and studies of the mechanisms of oncogene actions. His research activities have been supported by grants from NCI, NIAID, NIGMS, American Cancer Society, the NIH intramural program, and various philanthropies.
Prior to his appointment as NIH Director, Dr. Varmus served as chairman of the B oard on B iology for the National Research Council, an advisor to the Congressional Caucus for Biomedical Research, and a member of the Joint Steering Committee for Public Policy of Biomedical Societies. He directed "Winding Your Way Through DNA," a popular public symposium on recombinant DNA staged by UCSF. Dr. Varmus was also a member of the IOM committee that advised the Department of Defense on the use of funds allocated by Congress in 1992 for breast cancer research. In 1986 he chaired the subcommittee of the International Committee on the Taxonomy of Viruses that gave the AIDS virus its name, HIV.
Author or editor of five books and nearly 400 scientific papers, he has been elected to the National Academy of Sciences, the Institute of Medicine, and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. His 1992 book, Genes and the Biology of Cancer, coauthored with Robert Weinberg for the Scientific American Library, was intended for a general audience. A memoir published in 2009, The Art and Politics of Science (WW Norton), describes several aspects of his career as scientist, government official, and humanist, and is freely available through PubMed Central. He has also edited several professional journals, and served on a variety of review and advisory boards for government, biotechnology firms, and pharmaceutical companies.
He grew up on the south shore of Long Island, in Freeport, NY, where he attended public schools; his father practiced family medicine and his mother was a psychiatric social worker. He is a graduate of Amherst College (B.A., 1961), where he majored in English literature and edited the school newspaper; Harvard University (M.A., 1962) where he studied English literature as a Woodrow Wilson Fellow; and Columbia University (M.D., 1966). While in medical school, he worked for 3 months at a mission hospital in northern India.
After an internship and residency in internal medicine at Columbia-Presbyterian Hospital in New York, he served as a clinical associate for 2 years (1968-70) at the National Institute of Arthritis and Metabolic Diseases, where he did his first scientific work in the area of bacterial genetics with Dr. Ira Pastan, who is now co-chief of NCI's Laboratory of Molecular Biology. He went to UCSF initially as a postdoctoral fellow in Bishop's laboratory in 1970, developing a long-standing collaboration with Bishop to study tumor viruses, and was appointed to the faculty in 1971, becoming a full professor in 1979 and an ACS research professor in 1984.
During his tenure as Director of NIH, Dr. Varmus was noted for appointing several leading scientists to Directorships of Institutes and Centers; for overseeing the growth of the NIH budget from under $11 billion to over $18 billion, including the launch of a five year plan to double the NIH budget between 1998 to 2003; for planning the construction of the Mark O. Hatfield Clinical Research Center and the Dale and Betty Bumpers Center for Vaccine Reseach and completing the construction of the William Natcher Conference Center and the Louis Stokes Research Building; for nurturing multiple trans-Institute scientific initiatives; for supporting the accelerated growth of the Human Genome Project; for promoting research, especially on malaria, in developing countries; for conducting external evaluations of NIH research programs on HIV/AIDS and other topics; and for launching public access to full texts of NIH-supported research publications through the creation of PubMed Central. During his time as Director, he also attracted attention as a bicycle commuter (riding 12 miles to work through Rock Creek Park), as an active intramural scientist in the NCI program, and (through his work with the National Science and Technology Council) as a proponent of diverse sciences supported by many other US government agencies.
Dr. Varmus resigned from his position as NIH Director at the end of December 1999 to become the President and Chief Executive Officer of the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City on the first day of 2000.
A Return to NIH
President Barack Obama appointed Dr. Varmus as the 14th Director of the National Cancer Institute, after he had served as President of MSKCC for ten and a half years and as co-Chair of President Obama’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology; he was sworn in by HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius on July 12, 2010. A mong Dr. Varmus’ accomplishments during his tenure as NCI director, were the “Provocative Questions” initiative, the creation of NCI’s new Centers for Global Health and Cancer Genomics; completion of The Cancer Genome Atlas (an extensive study of nearly 10,000 cancer genomes from over twenty types of human cancer, in collaboration with the National Human Genome Research Institute); revitalization of the NCI’s clinical trials system; the restructuring of the NCI’s Frederick National Laboratory for Cancer Research and the launch of an FNLCR initiative to find drugs that target the cell signaling pathway controlled by the RAS oncogene; design of the cancer component of President Obama’s Precision Medicine Initiative; and changes in other aspects of the conduct of NCI-supported biomedical research, including a new Outstanding Investigator Award, grants to staff scientists, and an NIH biosketch that replaced the traditional bibliography with descriptions of major contributions to science. During this time, he continued his own research program in the NHGRI intramural program. Dr. Varmus stepped down on March 31, 2015, to join Weill Cornell Medical College's faculty as the Lewis Thomas University Professor in the Department of Medicine and the Meyer Cancer Center. At the same time, Dr. Varmus became a Senior Associate Core Member of the New York Genome Center (NYGC) to promote the use of cancer genomics throughout the New York region.
This page last reviewed on October 22, 2015