Harold E. Varmus Biography

(American Scientist Who Won Nobel Prize in Medicine for Discovery of the Cellular Origin of Retroviral Oncogenes)

Birthday: December 18, 1939 (Sagittarius)

Born In: Oceanside, New York, United States

Harold E. Varmus is an American scientist who won a share of the 1989 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. Along with J. Michael Bishop, he discovered the cellular origin of retroviral oncogenes and developed a new theory of the origin of cancer, which holds that the disease arises from mutations in some of our own normal genes. The duo also found out that the genes that are susceptible to such mutations are closely related to genes in a number of cancer-causing viruses. Born as the son of a physician, he was expected to follow in his father’s footsteps. But as a young man Varmus was more interested in literature and went on to earn a graduate degree in English at Harvard University. However, he changed his mind and entered the Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons, earning his MD in 1966. He was first exposed to laboratory science when he joined the Public Health Service at the National Institutes of Health where he performed research under Ira Pastan. He later 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. His scientific collaboration with Bishop led to many significant medical discoveries that are of much importance to the study of cancer causing viruses.
Quick Facts

Also Known As: Harold Elliot Varmus

Age: 84 Years, 84 Year Old Males


Spouse/Ex-: Constance Louise Casey

father: Frank Varmus

mother: Beatrice Varmus

children: Christopher Varmus, Jacob Varmus

Biologists Medical Scientists

Grouping of People: Nobel Laureates in Medicine

Notable Alumni: University Of California, San Francisco

U.S. State: New Yorkers

More Facts

education: Harvard University, Columbia University, Amherst College, University Of California, San Francisco

awards: 1989 - Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine
1982 - Albert Lasker Award for Basic Medical Research
1984 - Gairdner Foundation International Award

2009 - Phi Beta Kappa Award in Science - The art and politics of science
2001 - Vannevar Bush Award
2002 - National Medal of Science for Biological Sciences

Childhood & Early Life
Harold Eliot Varmus was born on December 18, 1939, in Oceanside, New York, U.S. to Jewish parents who had descended from immigrants who had arrived from Poland and Austria at the beginning of the century. His father, Frank Varmus, was a physician while his mother, Beatrice,, was a social service worker.
He graduated from Freeport High School in Freeport in 1957. As a youngster he was deeply interested in literature and writing, and planned for an academic career in literature. Following this dream, he earned an MA degree in English at Harvard University in 1962 with a focus on Anglo-Saxon and metaphysical poetry.
Armed with an English degree, he changed his mind and decided to pursue medical studies. He applied to, and was rejected by the Harvard Medical School following which he was accepted into the College of Physicians and Surgeons at Columbia University in New York in 1962. He received his MD in 1966, which included a three-month internship at a hospital in northern India.
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Varmus worked as a medical house officer at Columbia-Presbyterian Hospital from 1966 to 1968 following which he joined the Public Health Service at the National Institutes of Health where he was employed as a Clinical Associate in Ira Pastan's laboratory.
In 1970, he began postdoctoral research in J. Michael Bishop's lab at University of California, San Francisco. He became a Lecturer shortly thereafter, and in 1972, became a regular member of the faculty in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology at the university.
In the 1970s and 1980s, Bishop and Varmus together directed a research group which made several major discoveries regarding cancer causing viruses. The duo demonstrated that nearly-identical versions of cancer-causing genes (oncogenes) carried by retroviruses are present in the genome of normal, uninfected cells in a wide range of species, including humans.
Varmus steadily rose through the ranks in the UCSF and was promoted to professor in 1979 and became an American Cancer Society Research Professor in 1984. His collaborative research with Bishop shed light on the functioning of the retroviruses and contributed immensely to the understanding of cancer cells.
One of Varmus and Bishop’s biggest achievements 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 in 1910. The duo was honored with the 1989 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for their discoveries.
In 1993, President Bill Clinton nominated Varmus as director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Maryland, the nation's premier research and funding institution in the biomedical sciences. In this position he strengthened the institution’s commitment towards research on particular diseases, most notably AIDS, and helped to nearly double the research agency's budget.
He left NIH in 1999 to become president and director of the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York. He helped to expand the center's basic research and educational programs, and built stronger collaborative relationships with two neighboring research institutions, Weill-Cornell Medical College and Rockefeller University. During the ten years he spent there, he also directed a small laboratory where he pursued his cancer research.
Varmus teamed up with two colleagues, Patrick Brown at Stanford and Michael Eisen at UC Berkeley, to establish the Public Library of Science (PLOS), a not-for-profit publisher of a suite of open access journals in the biomedical sciences. It launched its first journal, ‘PLOS Biology’, in October 2003. Varmus is also the author of more than 300 scientific papers and five books.
He returned to NIH in 2010, this time as director of the National Cancer Institute (NCI). He left NCI in March 2015, and returned to New York to become the Lewis Thomas University Professor of Medicine at Weill-Cornell Medical College and as a Senior Associate at the New York Genome Center.
Major Works
Harold E. Varmus, in collaboration with J. Michael Bishop performed pioneering cancer research and is credited with the discovery of the cellular origin of retroviral oncogenes. Their studies in cancer-causing genes (oncogenes) carried by retroviruses shed new light on several questions on cancers that had been puzzling scientists so far.
Awards & Achievements
Harold E. Varmus shared the Albert Lasker Basic Medical Research Award with J. Michael Bishop in 1982.
In 1989, Varmus and Bishop were jointly awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine "for their discovery of the cellular origin of retroviral oncogenes."
Varmus was honored with the Vannevar Bush Award in 2001.
Personal Life & Legacy
In 1969 Varmus married journalist and book critic Constance Casey. They have two sons, Jacob and Christopher.

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