Ex-NIH chief and Nobel winner returns to lead National Cancer Institute

Harold Varmus, president of Memorial Sloan-Kettering.
Harold Varmus, president of Memorial Sloan-Kettering. (Keith Srakocic - Associated Press)
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By N.C. Aizenman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 18, 2010

President Obama has appointed Harold Varmus, a Nobel Prize-winning researcher and former director of the National Institutes of Health, to lead the National Cancer Institute, the White House announced Monday.

Varmus, 70, president of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in Manhattan, will take charge of the roughly $5 billion-budget institute in mid-July.

Although it is unusual for someone who once headed the entire NIH to return to run one of its member institutes, colleagues said the move offers Varmus the chance to have maximal impact on the field of cancer research at a unique moment in its history.

"The opportunities are greater than they've ever been," said Edward Benz, president of the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute at Harvard University. "But taking advantage of them is also more expensive than it's ever been because these new forms of science are very, very resource intensive."

As respected for his political savvy as he is for his scientific accomplishments, Varmus oversaw the doubling of the NIH's budget during his tenure as its director, from 1993 to 1999. Now, with the cost of cancer research galloping ahead of federal funding, Benz and other supporters said they are hoping Varmus can tap his extensive Washington network to drum up more resources.

"The fact that he already knows how to navigate the system is an incredible asset," said Ellen V. Sigal, chairwoman of Friends of Cancer Research, a D.C.-based think tank.

In a phone interview after his appointment was announced, Varmus said: "The economic times are different. Trying to improve the budget would be a good thing, but we have to also pay more attention to what we're doing with what we have."

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