News Release

Friday, December 1, 2006

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

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 of cancer.

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 oncogenes.”

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 York.

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

About the National Institutes of Health (NIH): 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. NIH is the primary federal agency conducting and supporting basic, clinical, and translational medical research, and is investigating the causes, treatments, and cures for both common and rare diseases. For more information about NIH and its programs, visit

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