Nobel Prize winner Harold E. Varmus, M.D., took the oath of office to become the National Cancer Institute’s (NCI) 14th director in July 2010. NCI is one of the 27 Institutes and Centers that comprise the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
“It’s very exciting to have you back,” said Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius during the swearing- in ceremony. “Today is the opening of a new chapter for NCI.”
Varmus was director of NIH from 1993 until the end of 1999.
In his opening remarks to a town hall meeting that reintroduced Varmus to the NIH community, NIH Director Francis Collins, M.D., Ph.D., called him “the best person on the planet to take the reins of the National Cancer Institute at this propitious moment.”
Varmus was co-recipient of the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1989 for studies of the genetic basis of cancer. He most recently served as president of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City.
Memorial Sloan-Kettering is an NCI-designated cancer center. NCIdesignated cancer centers are funded by competitive grants and are characterized by scientific excellence and the capability to integrate a diversity of research approaches to focus on the problem of cancer.
In his remarks to the town hall, Varmus termed NIH “the most glorious manifestation I know of what government and democracy are capable of doing.”
Varmus also spoke of the scientific climate that surrounds his return: “Suddenly we have an incredible specificity about markers and damaged genes in cancer cells. We have better information technology. We understand the biochemistry of the cell more profoundly. We have a portrait emerging of what is happening, one cancer at a time.”
Varmus spent 23 years as a faculty member at the University of California, San Francisco medical school, where he worked on the replication cycles of retroviruses and hepatitis B viruses, the functions of genes implicated in cancer, and the development of mouse models of human cancer.
During his tenure at NIH, Varmus helped to initiate a five-year doubling of the NIH budget. More recently, President Barack Obama appointed him cochair of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology. He has been a member of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences since 1984 and of the Institute of Medicine since 1991, and has received the National Medal of Science, the Vannevar Bush Award, and several honorary degrees and other prizes, in addition to the Nobel Prize.
By leading NCI, Varmus’ scientific career is coming full circle, as his scientific training occurred first as a Public Health Service officer at NIH, where he studied bacterial gene expression with Ira Pastan, M.D., currently chief of the Laboratory of Molecular Biology at NCI.
“We have to remember that the great achievements in science have almost always begun with an individual scientist having an unexpected idea,” Varmus said.