Harold E. Varmus

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Harold Varmus
Born Harold Eliot Varmus
(1939-12-18) December 18, 1939 (age 76)
Freeport, New York, US
Fields Cancer Biology
Institutions Weill Cornell Medicine
Alma mater
Known for
Notable awards
Spouse Constance Louise Casey (m. 1969)
Children 2

Harold Eliot Varmus (born December 18, 1939) is an American scientist who has served as the Director of both the National Institutes of Health (NIH; 1993-1999) and the National Cancer Institute (NCI; 2010-2015) and as President of the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center (MSKCC;2000-2010). In 1989, he shared the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine with J. Michael Bishop for discovery of the cellular origin of retrovirus/retroviral oncogenes. He is currently the Lewis Thomas University Professor of Medicine at Weill Cornell Medicine and a Senior Associate at the New York Genome Center.

Background, Early Life, and Education[4][edit]

Varmus is the grandson of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe who arrived in the United States in the late 19th and early 20th centuries from Poland and Austria-Hungary. His mother, Beatrice, was a graduate of Wellesley College and received a degree in psychiatric social work from New York University; his father was raised in Newark, New Jersey, attended Harvard College, and received a medical degree from Tufts. Varmus was born and raised in Freeport, New York, his mother’s hometown, where his father practiced family medicine and served as the Jones Beach State Park physician.

After graduation from Freeport High School in 1957, he enrolled at Amherst College, intending to follow in his father's footsteps as a medical doctor, but he majored in English literature, wrote a thesis about the novels of Charles Dickens (under William Pritchard), and headed the Amherst College newspaper. After receiving his B.A. magna cum laude in 1961, he entered the graduate program in English literature at Harvard University as a Woodrow Wilson Fellow. He left with an M.A. degree a year later to return to medical training, entering Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons. During his medical studies, his interests shifted from psychiatry to tropical disease to internal medicineand he worked at the Clara Swain missionary hospital in Bareilly, India, during an elective period. After receiving an M.D. degree in 1966, he served as an intern and resident in the Department of Medicine at the Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center.

Scientific Career and Research Accomplishments[edit]

To fulfill his national service obligations during the Vietnam War, Varmus became a member of the commissioned corps of the Public Health Service, working as a Clinical Associate in the laboratory of Ira Pastan at the National Institutes of Health from 1968 to 1970. During this first period of laboratory research, he and Pastan and their colleagues described aspects of the mechanism by which the lac operon of E. coli is regulated transcriptionally by cyclic AMP[5] In 1970, he and his wife, Constance Casey, moved to San Francisco, where he began post-doctoral studies with Michael Bishop at University of California, San Francisco under a fellowship from the California Division of the American Cancer Society. Appointed as an Assistant Professor in the UCSF Department of Microbiology and Immunology in 1972, he was promoted to professor in 1979 and became an American Cancer Society Research Professor in 1984.

During the course of his years at UCSF (1970 to 1993), Varmus’s scientific work was focused principally on the mechanisms by which retroviruses replicate, cause cancers in animals, and produce cancer-like changes in cultured cells. Much of this work was conducted jointly with Michael Bishop in a notably long scientific partnership. Their best-known accomplishment was the identification of a cellular gene (c-src) that gave rise to the v-src oncogene of Rous Sarcoma Virus, a cancer-causing virus first isolated from a chicken sarcoma by Peyton Rous in 1910. Their discovery triggered the identification of many other cellular proto-oncogenes&ndsh;progenitors of viral oncogenes and targets for mutations that drive human cancers. Much of this work and its consequences are described in his Nobel lecture and Bishop’s and in numerous histories of cancer research.

Other significant components of Varmus’s scientific work over the past four and a half decades include descriptions of the mechanisms by which retroviral DNA is synthesized and integrated into chromosomes in infected cells (refs); discovery of the Wnt-1 proto-oncogene with Roel Nusse;[6] elucidation of aspects of the replication cycle of hepatitis B virus (with Donald Ganem[7]); discovery of ribosomal frameshifting to make retroviral proteins (with Tyler Jacks[8]); isolation of a cellular receptor for avian retroviruses (with John Young and Paul Bates[9]); characterization of mutations of the epidermal growth factor receptor gene in human lung cancers, including a common mutation that confers drug resistance (with William Pao[10]); and generation of numerous mouse models of human cancer. Notably, Varmus continued to conduct or direct laboratory work throughout his service in leadership positions at the NIH, MSKCC, and NCI.

Personal life[edit]

Varmus is an avid bicyclist and an Advisory Committee member of Transportation Alternatives the New York City-based advocacy group for pedestrians and cyclists. He is also a runner, rower, and fisherman. He has been married to Constance Louise Casey since 1969, and has two sons, Jacob and Christopher. Varmus and his son Jacob Varmus, a jazz trumpeter and composer, have performed a series of concerts entitled "Genes and Jazz: The Music of Cell Biology" at the Guggenheim, the Smithsonian,[11] Boston Museum of Science, and Kennedy Center for the Arts. His brother-in-law is novelist John Casey.


Varmus endorsed then-United States Senator Barack Obama (D-Illinois) for the 2008 presidential election.[12] He has been selected as one of co-chairs of the Council of Advisors on Science and Technology to serve in the Obama administration. He is member of the Council on Foreign Relations.[13]

He wrote an article in 2013 praising George W. Bush's initiation and implementation of the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief.[14][15]


  1. ^ Reardon, Sara (2015). "Harold Varmus to resign as head of US cancer institute". Nature. doi:10.1038/nature.2015.17063. ISSN 1476-4687. 
  2. ^ Harold Varmus as NCI Director - NIH Internet Archive
  3. ^ "Professor Harold Varmus ForMemRS". London: Royal Society. Archived from the original on 2015-10-13. 
  4. ^ Varmus, Harold (2009-01-01). The Art and Politics of Science. New York: W.W. Norton & Company. ISBN 9780393061284. PMID 24696889. 
  5. ^ Varmus, H.E., Perlman, R.L. and Pastan, I. Regulation of lac messenger ribonucleic acid synthesis by cyclic adenosine 3'-5' monophosphate and glucose. J. Biol. Chem. 245:2259,1970.
  6. ^ Nusse, R., Varmus, H.E. Wnt genes. Cell 69:1073-88, 1992.
  7. ^ Seeger, C., Ganem, D. and Varmus, H.E. Nucleotide sequence of an infectious molecularly cloned genome of the ground squirrel hepatitis B virus. Journal of Virology. 51:367-375, 1984.
  8. ^ Jacks, T. and Varmus, H.E. Expression of the Rous sarcoma virus pol gene by ribosomal frameshifting. Science 230:1237, 1985.
  9. ^ Young, J.A.T., Bates, P., Varmus, H.E. Isolation of the chicken gene encoding the receptor for subgroup A-specific avian leukosis and sarcoma virus. Journal of Virology. 67:1811-6, 1993,
  10. ^ Pao, W., Miller, V., Zakowski, M., Doherty, J., Politi, K., Sarkaria, I., Singh, B., Heelan, B., Rusch, V., Fulton, L., Mardis, E., Kupfer, D, Wilson, R., Kris, M., and Varmus, H.E. EGF receptor gene mutations are common in lung cancers from "never smokers" and are associated with sensitivity of tumors to gefitinib and erlotinib. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 101:13306-11, 2004.
  11. ^ Goldberger, Paul. "Swing Science". The New Yorker. Retrieved 24 October 2015. 
  12. ^ Nicholas Thompson: Harold Varmus Endorses Obama February 03, 2008
  13. ^ Membership Roster – Council on Foreign Relations. Cfr.org. Retrieved on 2012-02-17.
  14. ^ Varmus, Harold (December 1, 2013). "Making PEPFAR". Science & Diplomacy 2 (4). 
  15. ^ Harold Varmus (2009). The Art and Politics of Science. W. W. Norton. ISBN 978-0-393-06128-4. OCLC 227016094. Retrieved 2015-10-24. 

External links[edit]

Political offices
Preceded by
Bernadine Healy
Director of the National Institutes of Health
Succeeded by
Elias Zerhouni