From lit to lab

Dr. Harold Varmus, director of the National Cancer Institute will step down March 31. Photo by Matthew Septimus
Dr. Harold Varmus, director of the National Cancer Institute will step down March 31.
Photo by Matthew Septimus

During his nearly five years as director of the National Cancer Institute, Dr. Harold Varmus has dealt with shrinking research dollars and powerful political interference.

But he played the cards he continued to be dealt as best as he could, and he’s proud of his tenure that focused on understanding and controlling cancer as a disorder of the genome – the genetic material of an organism.

Varmus, 75, who is Jewish, is moving on and will lead a research laboratory in the Meyer Cancer Center at the Weill-Cornell Medical College in New York. He also will serve as a senior advisor to the dean there. On April 1, Doug Lowy, his chief deputy and “close friend,” will become acting NCI director.

Varmus has guided the NCI through actual and threatened government shutdowns and the lingering effects of budget cutbacks through sequestration. NCI’s current budget of $5.1 billion is roughly $177 million less than when Varmus took its helm in July 2010.

That, he said, means “more people chasing less money for more expensive” projects.

“I have not made a big deal about it. I am not a whiner,” he said. Instead, what he did was “give people time to work, get smart people to use the money and hope for the best.”

He’s not interested in talking about what might have resulted with more funding. “Of course, if you do more, spend more, you are likely to discover more,” he said. But as to whether better therapies, medicine or even a cure could have occurred, Varmus said, “You can’t predict.”

Cancer deaths continue to decline annually. However, he said, it’s not all due to research. Better screening is taking place, and fewer people are smoking, he said.

He does believe a more coordinated effort to study changes in genomes that has taken place under his watch has been beneficial. With the near-completion of the Cancer Genome Atlas and new targeted therapies, some of which have been approved for general use, progress is being made, he said.

That applies to numerous types of cancer. Advocates press for more funding for a particular cancer, but Varmus would like people to understand that a breakthrough in one type of cancer often is beneficial to other cancers as well.

Studying a cancerous gene is more important than determining where a particular cancer arose, he said. An important breakthrough in colon cancer was discovered while researching breast cancer, Varmus pointed out. “Everything builds” on each other, he said.

Early in his career, Varmus worked with J. Michael Bishop to study a rare cancer in chickens. That may not seem so important, he said, but “the virus itself was a great tool.”

Their findings led to the understanding of the origin of cancer and how a normal cellular version of a gene can be mutated into a cancer cell. That discovery resulted in Varmus and Bishop winning the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 1989.

When he accepted the award, Varmus, who had started his college career in literature, read a passage from Beowulf, and then said that he had not slain the enemy – cancer.

“In our adventures, we have only seen our monster more clearly and described his scales and fangs in new ways, ways that reveal a cancer cell to be like Grendel, a distorted version of our normal cells,” he wrote in his book, The Art and Politics of Science.

Varmus received an undergraduate degree from Amherst College. He went on to Harvard University to study English literature but soon regretted his decision, finding literature too limiting. He received a medical degree from Columbia University’s College of Physicians and Surgeons, telling himself that he could always continue writing.

While there, rather than be drafted into the Vietnam War, which he strongly opposed, Varmus agreed to perform two years of public service at the National Institute of Health. There, he developed a passion for laboratory work.

Following years of research, then-President Bill Clinton appointed Varmus to head the vast National Institutes of Health, where from 1993 to 1999 he presided over some 20,000 employees and 30,000 grant recipients.

While not about to make any predictions on impending cancer therapies or cures, Varmus said “a lot of great things are happening.” The NCI is working on “projects designed to do big things,” he said.

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