UCSF Nobel Laureate Is Sworn in as Head of the National Cancer Institute

Harold Varmus, MD, who was a UCSF faculty member for more than two decades, was sworn into office on Monday, July 12, as the new director of the National Cancer Institute (NCI), one of the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

Harold Varmus with J. Michael Bishop in 2002. They shared a Nobel Prize in 1989. Photo:Mikkel Aaland

Varmus came to UCSF in 1970 and later shared the 1989 Nobel Prize in Medicine or Physiology with UCSF researcher J. Michael Bishop, MD, now chancellor emeritus of UCSF, for their studies of genes that play a role in cancer. Varmus left UCSF in 1993 after being appointed to serve as director of the NIH by President Clinton. After his tenure at the NIH ended in 1999, Varmus became president of the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, a position he held until this week. NIH Director Francis Collins, MD, PhD, called Varmus “the best person on the planet to take the reins of the National Cancer Institute at this propitious moment.”

Varmus Vows Reform and a Focus on Answerable Questions

On the same day he was sworn in, Varmus held a town hall meeting with NCI staff to discuss objectives. Some NCI programs are in need of repair, Varmus said. “First on the list is reforming the clinical trials system.” Rather than funding “pie in the sky” research, Varmus said he would invite cancer researchers nationwide to help identify important questions that can now be answered, thanks to advances in knowledge and experimental tools. The solutions to these questions may lead to clinical applications more quickly. “The questions that we need to answer in the next five to eight years have not been very succinctly defined,” Varmus said. Identifying these questions “will help scientists think about what the next steps should be,” he added. Varmus cited the importance of improving cooperation with other agencies, including the Food and Drug Administration, and with industry and academic scientists, in order to revise the drug approval process for the new era of genetically-based treatments and new ways to monitor a patient’s response to treatment. He also pointed out a need to develop vaccination and tobacco control programs to fight preventable cancers in poorer countries. Frank McCormick, PhD, director of the Helen Diller Family Comprehensive Cancer Center at UCSF, sees Varmus’ directorship as “an excellent opportunity to implement radical changes in the way we do cancer research. The challenges of identifying targets for therapy and of developing and testing these therapies in the clinic are now clear,” he said. “To address these formidable challenges, we need fresh, new approaches and ideas. “We are optimistic that Dr. Varmus will foster a research environment at the NCI and throughout the cancer research community that matches these challenges and delivers better solutions to patients.”

Nobel Prize for Cancer Research at UCSF

Varmus has amassed a wealth of leadership credentials and experience, but his reputation as a leader in cancer research was first established through his collaborative explorations with Bishop at UCSF throughout the 1970s. Varmus first came to UCSF to work as a postdoctoral fellow in Bishop’s lab, although Bishop has said that the relationship was always collaborative, rather than supervisory. Bishop and Varmus were first motivated to work together because of their shared focus on molecular biology and interest in tumor viruses. They studied Rous sarcoma virus, which infects chickens and causes cancer. The genes of the virus are made from the nucleic acid RNA, rather than DNA. The virus uses an enzyme to make DNA copies of its genes, which it can insert into the DNA genome of the infected host. A viral gene called src was shown to be responsible for causing tumors in chickens. Researchers had previously looked without success for evidence of similarly-acting tumor viruses infecting humans and causing cancer. But to their surprise, Bishop and Varmus in their studies of the chicken-infecting virus demonstrated that what is essentially the same gene is naturally found in a noncancerous form in the host itself. The natural gene, called a proto-oncogene, can be altered to become a cancer-inducing oncogene. In the course of evolution, src, the Rous sarcoma virus oncogene – which plays no useful role in the viral life cycle – may have been picked up from an infected host and then become altered, they suggested. The initial discovery by Varmus and Bishop of normal proto-oncogenes that are abnormally altered in cancer cells has led to the identification of dozens of human oncogenes that play a role in cell signaling, cell growth and cell survival, and in determining a cell’s fate to perform specialized roles. Many of these oncogenes are being investigated as potential targets for new drugs to fight cancer.

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Harold Varmus Becomes Fourteenth Director of the NCI
NCI Cancer Bulletin, July 13, 2010