NCI Director Resigns

NCI Director Harold Varmus Resigns

Author: Silas Inman

Dr. Harold Varmus

Harold Varmus, MD

The Nobel Prize winning director of the National Cancer Institute (NCI), Harold Varmus, MD, has tendered his resignation in a letter to President Barack Obama, citing economic restraints as a leading cause for his departure.

"We have endured losses in real as well as adjusted dollars; survived the threats and reality of government shutdowns; and have not yet recovered all the funds that sequestration has taken away," Varmus wrote in a letter to NCI staff, grantees, and advisors.

"This experience has been especially vivid to those of us who have lived in better times, when NIH was the beneficiary of strong budgetary growth," Varmus wrote. "As Mae West famously said, 'I’ve been rich and I’ve been poor, and rich is better.'"

Varmus' 5-year term as the director of the NCI will conclude at the end of the month. On April 1, 2015, the current deputy director, Douglas Lowy, MD, will become the acting NCI director. In his letter, Varmus credited Lowy with making many of the current accomplishments possible, along with much of the senior staff at the NCI.

"Rather than simply hold on to survive our financial crisis without significant change, I have tried with essential help from my senior colleagues to reshape some of our many parts and functions," Varmus said. "In this way, I have tried to take advantage of some amazing new opportunities to improve the understanding, prevention, diagnosis, and treatment of cancers, despite fiscal duress."

Despite financial setbacks, Varmus noted several key accomplishments that were achieved over the course of his directorship. These focused on the establishment and strengthening of new cancer centers and improvements to clinical trials programs, grant procedures, and stability for investigators.

Varmus listed these achievements, stating "a brief list of some satisfying accomplishments serves as a reminder that good things can be done despite the financial shortfalls that have kept us from doing more."

In a letter to President Obama, Varmus, the corecipient of the Nobel Prize for his work into the genetic basis of cancer, wrote that during his 5-year directorship several advances had been made in the area of targeted therapies and immunotherapy. Furthermore, he added, many of these advances will be the central focus of the President's Precision Medicine Initiative.

"During this period, new, targeted drug therapies and surprisingly successful immunotherapies have been developed, and new tools for cancer prevention and early detection—virus vaccines and lung cancer screening—have been validated and used on an expanded scale," Varmus wrote to the President. "Many of these accomplishments now fuel optimism about the cancer component of the Precision Medicine Initiative that you recently launched."

The President's Precision Medicine Initiative, which was first announced in the State of the Union Address on January 20, 2015, will provide $215 million toward research as part of the 2016 budget. Under the plan, $70 million would go directly to the NCI and $130 million would go to the NIH. The remaining amount would go toward the FDA ($10 million) and the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology ($5 million).

An editorial published in The New England Journal of Medicine by Varmus and NIH director Francis S. Collins, MD, PhD, described the initiative as a starting point for overcoming some of the current obstacles facing precision oncology, which include "unexplained drug resistance, genomic heterogeneity of tumors, insufficient means for monitoring responses and tumor recurrence, and limited knowledge about the use of drug combinations."

Varmus will continue to be involved in cancer research, as he pursues scientific work in New York, where he will establish a laboratory at the Meyer Cancer Center at the Weill-Cornell Medical College. He also expressed desires to work with the New York Genome Center, which hopes to integrate genomics into cancer care.

“It has been our great fortune to have Harold at the helm of the NCI,” said Collins, in a statement. “His breadth and depth of expertise in biomedical research is unparalleled, and he’s been a tremendous colleague to me and invaluable to the agency.”


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