Harold E. Varmus Biography (1939-)

microbiologist, virologist

Harold Eliot Varmus was born in Oceanside, New York, on December 18, 1939. Heattended Amherst College, graduating with a B.A. degree in 1961 (twenty-three years later, Amherst would award him with an honorary doctorate). Varmus went on to perform graduate work at Harvard University, receiving an M.A. degree in 1962, then he studied medicine at Columbia University, receiving an M.D.in 1966.

Varmus practiced medicine as an intern and resident at the Presbyterian Hospital of New York City between 1966 and 1968. He then worked as a clinical associate at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland, from 1968 to 1970. Moving to California, Varmus served as a lecturer in the department of microbiology at the University of California in San Francisco, becoming anassociate professor in 1974--the same year that he was named associate editorof Cell and Virology--then, in 1979, he was promoted to full professor of microbiology, biochemistry and biophysics. During the 1980s, Varmus began to accumulate a number of prestigious honors for his research, including the 1982 California Academic Scientist of the Year award and the 1983 Passano Foundation award; he was also the co-recipient of the Lasker Foundation award.In 1984, Varmus received both the Armand Hammer Cancer prize and the GeneralMotors Alfred Sloan award, and the American Cancer Society made him an honorary professor of molecular virology. These honors were followed by the Shubitz Cancer prize and, in 1989, the Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine.

Varmus and J. Michael Bishop, his colleague from the University of Californiaat San Francisco, were awarded the Nobel Prize in in honor of their 1976 discovery which showed that normal cells contain genes that can cause cancer. Varmus and Bishop, working with Dominique Stehelin and Peter Vogt, helped to prove the theory that cancer has a genetic component, demonstrating that oncogenes are actually normal genes that are altered in some way, perhaps due to carcinogen-induced mutations. Their research focused on Rous sarcoma, a virus which can produce tumors in chickens by attaching to a normal chicken gene asit duplicates within a cell. Since then, research has identified a number ofadditional "proto-oncogenes" which, when circumstances dictate, abandon theirnormal role of overseeing cell division and growth and turn potentially cancerous. Varmus's and Bishop's oncogene studies had a tremendous impact on theefforts to understand the genetic basis of cancer. The results of their workquickly found practical applications, especially in cancer diagnosis and prognosis.

Varmus was nominated by U.S. President Bill Clinton to the directorship of the National Institutes of Health and was confirmed in November 1993. The director of the NIH plays a vital part in setting the course for biomedical research in the United States. Varmus's nomination was strongly supported by biomedical scientists, but there was some opposition from AIDS activists. They--aswell as others who were concerned with the health of women and members of minority groups--were concerned that Varmus would be more interested in basic biomedical research than in applied studies and feared that the medical research related to their specific concerns might be neglected. Varmus has argued that basic research in science, especially investigations of the fundamental properties of cells, genes, and tissues, could eventually lead to cures for many diseases, such as AIDS and cancer. As director, Varmus is also interested in revitalizing the intramural research program at NIH. He believes that science education in the United States needs to be improved and that students should be exposed to a science curriculum sooner, in smaller classes, by better-informed teachers.

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