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Harold Elliot Varmus (1939 - )

Susan Wiegand

Harold Varmus was born in Oceanside, New York. He began his academic career studying Elizabethan poetry at Amherst College. He went on to earn a postgraduate degree in English at Harvard before deciding that he wanted to pursue a career in medicine. He distinguished himself as quickly in this new field as he had in his other academic pursuits, receiving his MD in 1966 from Columbia University in New York.

He began his career as a surgeon in the U.S. Public Health Service, then moved to San Francisco, where he joined the University of California Medical Center. It was at UCSF that he met Michael Bishop. Their partnership and subsequent research into cancer genes would change the course of cancer research.

Their work revolved around the study of oncogenes. Oncogenes are normal genes that control growth in every living cell, but which under certain conditions can turn renegade and cancerous. Varmus and Bishop's work - along with the work of a number of other research scientists - stemmed from the hypothesis that the growth of cancerous cells is not the result of an invasion from outside the cell, but rather a misuse of a normal gene by a retrovirus, as a result of exposure to some aggravating carcinogen, such as radiation or smoke.

This research, conducted under the supervision of Varmus and Bishop at the University of California at San Francisco in the mid-seventies, has led to great strides in the understanding, diagnosis, and treatment of a variety of cancers. Over 50 oncogenes have been identified, some of which cause cancer by being turned on or activated at the wrong time, while others, referred to as "anti-oncogenes" do the opposite - causing cancer by failing to shut off growth at the right time. Varmus and Bishop were celebrated by the Nobel committee in 1989 for the research they had done on oncogenes.

Instead of basking in the glow of his Nobel Prize, Harold Varmus took on enormous new challenges. He became the first Nobel Laureate to be appointed head of the National Institutes of Health. It was no secret that his broad education, his fervor for pure science research, and his personal charisma and energy outweighed questions about his qualifications as the NIH's premier administrator. Prior to his appointment, he had never run a lab with more than 25 people in it. He became responsible for managing the largest medical research entity in the world, with an annual budget of $11 billion. For Varmus, a self-declared "data-junkie," this meant moving his laboratory, lock, stock and graduate students to Washington, D.C., so that research could continue as usual.

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