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Nobel Laureate and Former NIH Head Harold Varmus Elected to University Trustees

By James Devitt

Harold E. Varmus

Harold E. Varmus, a Nobel laureate and former director of the National Institutes of Health, has been elected a Trustee of Columbia University.

Varmus, P & S'66, has served as the president and chief executive officer of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City since January 2000.

Varmus shared the 1989 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine with J. Michael Bishop for their work at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) on the genetic basis of cancer. Varmus, who spent 23 years as a faculty member at UCSF, 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.

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 for human cancer.

In 1993, Varmus was named by President Bill Clinton to serve as the director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), a position he held until the end of 1999. At the NIH, Varmus 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 and helped to increase the NIH budget from under $11 to nearly $18 billion.

Varmus has been an advisor to the federal government, pharmaceutical and biotechnology firms and many academic institutions. Recently, he served on the World Health Organization's Commission on Macroeconomics and Health, advisory committees on electronic publishing and a National Research Council panel on genetically modified organisms.

Varmus has co-authored, with Robert Weinberg, "Genes and the Biology of Cancer" (Scientific American Library, 1992), an introduction to the genetic basis of cancer for a general audience. He has also co-edited five books and has authored or co-authored nearly 350 journal articles. Varmus has been a member of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences since 1984 and of the Institute of Medicine since 1991.

Varmus obtained his bachelor's degree in English from Amherst College, graduating magna cum laude in 1961, and a master's degree in English literature from Harvard in 1962. In addition to graduating from Columbia's College of Physicians & Surgeons in 1966, Varmus served on the medical house staff at Presbyterian Hospital from 1966 to 1968. Varmus was awarded an honorary doctorate from Columbia in 1990.

Published: Sep 03, 2002
Last modified: Sep 18, 2002


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