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One On 1: Head Of Nation's Foremost Cancer Center Recalls Decades Of Advances

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The American Cancer Society estimates that almost one and a half million new cancer cases will be diagnosed in 2007. In this week's One On 1, NY1's Budd Mishkin introduces us to a doctor and scientist at the forefront of the battle against cancer.

 View the full, uncut interview with our web-only "One On 1 Extra" feature at the bottom of the page.

He spent almost a decade working in Washington running the National Institutes of Health.

Now he's headed up Memorial Sloan Cancer Center for almost a decade.

For Dr. Harold Varmus, after a career spent negotiating the vagaries of science, one thing is certain.

“Nobody can dispute the fact that it's much more fun to live in New York than it is to live in Washington, DC, for a lot of reasons,” says Varmus.

Varmus has been at the top of the medical and scientific worlds for a long time. He’s a Nobel Prize winner for cancer research. The NIH director in the Clinton administration.

And now president of Memorial Sloan Kettering, an institution with vast influence in New York and around the world, a nexus between science and health care.

“In Memorial hospital, we're trying to practice the best possible care of cancer patients that we can, for people that have cancer now,” says Varmus. “In the institute and in parts of the hospital, we're doing research that we hope will benefit people in the future."

The scope of Varmus's work is not contained inside the walls of Memorial Sloan Kettering. He is behind the effort to make New York a biotech hub.

"When you think of New York, you think of entertainment, finance, sports, and many other things. But New York is the second best-funded city with respect to NIH grants. So it's a major center for bio medical research,” says Varmus.

This past summer, Governor Eliot Spitzer named Varmus to a board designed to oversee and administer $600 million to promote stem cell research and development.

Varmus says the controversy over stem cell research and federal funding has forced states to take the lead, and has kept young researchers at bay.

"I like to call it Îcheckerboard quilt’ across the country,” says Varmus. “There are states where certain kinds of research are illegal, and states not far away provide money to support the same kinds of research. So this to me is not something that will induce young people to feel that this is an area of research that is going to be secure."

One of Varmus's mantras is that money should be devoted to general cancer research and not funneled to individual diseases.

It's a belief that has brought him into disagreement with what he calls "disease advocacy groups." He claims that many of the advances in cancer therapies over the last 40 years have come from such research, which he labels "unpredictable."

"A lot of the work that went on depended on the willingness of the federal government to make investments in the studies of fruit flies, and worms, cancers in animals, and viruses that cause cancers in other animals, but not cancers in human beings,” says Varmus.

When Varmus is not working on, or writing or speaking about cancer, you can often find him on his beloved bike.

He's a serious cyclist, so much so that when Lance Armstrong came to town for a race to raise money for Memorial Sloan Kettering, someone took the poster from the event, scratched out the name of one of the elite riders and wrote in Varmus's name.

And for a man who has looked for sure things in his research for 40 years, another hobby provides anything but: he's a small time investor in Broadway shows.

"My best hit so far, of course, was ÎHairspray,’ but, that was only after passing up on ÎThe Producers,’” says Varmus.

Investing in a show is, after all, an inexact science.

Yet, one of the most renowned scientists in the country might have become an English teacher if not for a dream he had while a graduate student at Harvard.

“I woke up in a sweat, thinking that they wouldn't care if the English teacher didn't turn up, but patients would care if the doctor didn't turn up,” says Varmus.

The irony is, Varmus claims he hasn't seen a patient in 30 years, but he frequently teaches. He grew up on Long Island, the son of a physician and a psychiatric social worker.

He studied English at Amherst and then as a grad student at Harvard before the dream convinced him to go to medical school, which he did at Columbia.

Varmus eventually landed at the University of California at San Francisco, where he describes his research on a chicken virus as Wagner, not Mozart — a gradual process mixed with success and doubt.

"We were studying chicken cancers and mouse cancers and not everything you learn with experimental models prove to be illuminating and deeply significant for treating of human cancer,” says Varmus. “But in our case, it turned out to be quite predictive of how cancer is going to be controlled.”

Varmus and his colleague Michael Bishop were credited with discovering how a normal gene can mutate and lead to cancer.

"The basic principle, the paradigm, if you will, that was illuminated by studying that virus [was that[ the virus carries a cancer-causing gene, the cancer-causing gene is derived from a normal gene in a chicken that turns out to be a gene that shared through evolution with other organisms,” says Varmus. That was the beginning of understanding genetic stages of cancer. The idea that these genes would be important in human cancer, while certainly a reasonable idea, it took a long time to get validated."


It was certainly validated in 1989, when Varmus and Bishop won the Nobel Prize for their research. It landed them on the front page of the paper and at Candlestick Park to throw out the first ball.

But Varmus says the prize has some dark sides.

“The danger of accepting too many invitations to do things you don't want to do and shouldn't do; an expectation of something that's greater than what you're able to deliver,” he says.

Yet it opens a lot of doors. In 1993, President Bill Clinton opened a big one, asking Varmus to become director of the National Institutes of Health.

“I was catapulted just from just being a lab rat into running a big agency, in part because I had this little emblem of distinction,” says Varmus.

He was credited with doubling the NIH’s budget to $20 billion and he developed a facility for describing the agency's research in layman's terms. He had to. He was always on call.

"Any single member of Congress, almost any senior member of the administration, could call me up, and say, ÎCome down and talk to me,’” says Varmus.

But after the bureaucracy of running an agency with 20,000 employees, and little time for his lab work, Varmus welcomed a return to New York to run Memorial Sloan Kettering, a chance to get back in the research game and be part of the increasing interaction between scientists and doctors.

"To do this right, you really need to understand what the clinical problems are that doctors are facing, whether it's drug resistance or some difficulty in surgery, or making an earlier diagnosis, these are the problems that we need to think more about as scientists,” says Varmus.

He and his wife Constance Casey, a journalist and book reviewer, have two sons. They have been married for 38 years, almost the same amount of time that Varmus has dedicated to studying cancer.

"We cure some cancers now, we'll cure more in the future, but the expectation has to be, I think, that the cancer will continue to be a distinctly human medical problem that we'll be much better equipped to control,” says Varmus.

–Budd Mishkin

ONE ON 1 EXTRA

 Take a behind-the-scenes look at this week's "One On 1" profile with Budd Mishkin's full, uncut interview in Real Video:

  PART 1

  PART 2

  PART 3

  PART 4

  PART 5

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