Dr. Harold Varmus is resigning from the National Cancer Institute, effective March 31, ending an almost five-year tenure as director of one of the most prominent cancer research organizations in the country.
Varmus, 75, will join Weill Cornell Medical College in New York City to teach, and he also will work with the New York Genome Center to advance the use of cancer genomics. Dr. Douglas Lowy, the NCI's deputy director, will fill in as acting director April 1.
President Barack Obama appointed Varmus director of the NCI at the National Institutes of Health in July 2010. Varmus previously led the NIH from 1993-1999 and expanded the agency's research budget by 50% over that period. He also won a Nobel Prize with Dr. Mike Bishop in 1989 for their work with retroviruses and oncogenes, or cancer-causing genes.
He left the NIH in 2000 to become president of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York, a position he eventually left for the NCI directorship.
“I have enjoyed each of these opportunities, but the NCI directorship has been the most meaningful to me—a more than full-time job, addressed to one of the greatest and most complex threats to human life throughout the globe,” Varmus wrote in his resignation letter to Obama.
The NCI is the largest component of the National Institutes of Health. It received more than $4.9 billion in funding in 2014. But the NCI's $4.9 billion budget in 2014 was actually $180 million less than when Varmus took office.
Similar to other government research agencies, money has been difficult to obtain the past few years due to congressional budget battles. Mandated cuts from sequestration also have chipped away at NIH research project grants and awards, which Varmus and other medical researchers have criticized.
In a note to colleagues, Varmus said he “tried to take advantage of some amazing new opportunities to improve the understanding, prevention, diagnosis and treatment of cancers, despite fiscal duress.”
For example, Varmus oversaw the NCI as it established centers for global health and cancer genomics, and increased support to NCI-designated cancer centers and hospitals. Varmus also expressed optimism for Obama's recently announced initiative involving precision medicine.
Several clinical organizations praised the work Varmus did during his time at the NCI. “Dr. Varmus established valuable initiatives that will help transform cancer research for the 21st century and improve cancer care on a global level,” said Dr. Richard Schilsky, chief medical officer of the American Society of Clinical Oncology. “He accomplished these tasks during a period when the NCI faced unprecedented financial instability.”
Obama's fiscal 2016 budget called for $31.3 billion in NIH funding, which would be a modest 3.3% boost from this year's total. NIH Director Dr. Francis Collins said in February the requested $1 billion increase would lead to 1,200 new research grants.
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