Citation - 2008 Friesen Prize - Harold Varmus


haroldvarmuspic.jpgHarold Varmus, former Director of the National Institutes of Health and co-recipient of a Nobel Prize for studies of the genetic basis of cancer, has served as the President and Chief Executive Officer of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City since January 2000.

Much of Dr. Varmus’ scientific work was conducted during 23 years as a faculty member at the University of California, San Francisco, Medical School, where he and Dr. J. Michael Bishop and their co-workers demonstrated the cellular origins of the oncogene of a chicken retrovirus. This discovery led to the isolation of many cellular genes that normally control growth and development and are frequently mutated in human cancer. For this work, Bishop and Varmus received many awards, including the 1989 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine. Varmus is also widely recognized for his studies of 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 (the focus of much of the current work in his laboratory at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center).

In 1993, Varmus was named by President Clinton to serve as the Director of the National Institutes of Health, a position he held until the end of 1999. During his tenure at the NIH, he initiated many changes in the conduct of intramural and extramural research programs; recruited new leaders for most of the important positions at the NIH; planned three major buildings on the NIH campus, including the Hatfield Clinical Research Center; and helped to initiate the five-year doubling of the NIH budget.

Since his arrival at MSKCC, Dr. Varmus has emphasized opportunities to harness recent advances in the biological sciences to improve the care of patients with cancer. Under his leadership, the scientific programs have been reorganized and enlarged, a magnificent new research building, the Mortimer B. Zuckerman Research Center, has been constructed, and new graduate training programs have been established in chemical biology and computational biology (as part of a new Tri-Institutional Research Program with Rockefeller University and Weill-Cornell Medical College) and in cancer biology (through MSKCC’s first degree-awarding program in the newly-established Louis V. Gerstner, Jr. Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences).

In addition, he has overseen the construction of new clinical facilities (for pediatrics, pathology, urology, and surgery); the planning of a new center for breast cancer treatment and imaging; the founding of a hospital-based program in translational research (the Human Oncology and Pathogenesis Program); and the development of the Tri-Institutional Stem Cell Initiative. To ensure that MSKCC is promoting high quality cancer care for all citizens of New York and equal opportunities for its employees, he has helped to found and oversee a new cancer clinic in central Harlem (the Ralph Lauren Center for Cancer Care and Prevention) and new programs for diversity and gender equity (the Office of Diversity Programs in Clinical Care, Research, and Training, and the Women Faculty Affairs Program).

Varmus has authored over 300 scientific papers and four books, including an introduction to the genetic basis of cancer for a general audience, and he has been an advisor to the Federal government, pharmaceutical and biotechnology firms, and many academic institutions. He served on the World Health Organization’s Commission on Macroeconomics and Health from 2000 to 2002; is a co-founder and Chairman of the Board of Directors of the Public Library of Science, a publisher of open access journals in the biomedical sciences; chairs the Scientific Board of the Grand Challenges in Global Health at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation; and is involved in initiatives to promote science in developing countries, including the Global Science Corps, through the Science Initiatives Group,. He has been a member of the US 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.

A native of Freeport, Long Island, Varmus is the son of Dr. Frank Varmus, a general practitioner, and Beatrice Varmus, a psychiatric social worker. After graduating from Freeport High School, he majored in English literature at Amherst College and earned a master’s degree in English at Harvard University. He is a graduate of Columbia University’s College of Physicians and Surgeons, worked as a medical student in a hospital in India, and served on the medical house staff at Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center. His scientific training occurred first as a Public Health Service officer at the NIH, where he studied bacterial gene expression with Dr. Ira Pastan, and then as a post-doctoral fellow with Dr. Bishop at the University of California, San Francisco.

He is married to Constance Casey, a journalist and horticulturist; their two sons, Jacob and Christopher, also live in New York City.