DR. HAROLD VARMUS BEGINS TENURE AS NCI DIRECTOR
Summary Of July 12, 2010 Town Hall Meeting**
Harold Varmus, MD, assumed the position of Director of the National Cancer Institute (NCI) Monday, July 12, 2010, after a private swearing-in ceremony with his wife and Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius. Later in the day, Dr. Varmus conducted a town hall meeting with NCI staff and outside constituents to help "set the tone, outline some objectives, and explain his reasons for returning" to the National Institutes of Health (NIH). He explained that the purpose of the town hall meeting was not to set the agenda for NCI, but instead to use it as an opportunity to express some of the thoughts that have been "percolating through his brain."
Francis Collins, MD, PhD provided introductory remarks and said that Dr. Varmus is the "best person on the planet to take the reins of NCI," especially at a time when there are so many scientific opportunities to pursue in both the basic and translational fields of research.
During the town hall meeting, Dr. Varmus discussed the following topics:
- Reasons for Returning to the NIH
Dr. Varmus' Basic Principles
- "There is no better time to lead the Nation's cancer research efforts." Dr. Varmus pointed out that incredible specificity exists today in regard to understanding cancer. He said that we now have a portrait of all the cancers and understand how the parts interact. He also said that in addition to making progress in the way we treat cancer, we are also improving our abilities to prevent, anticipate, and diagnose cancer.
- He will be able to understand firsthand why all NIH Directors have "IC Envy." As NIH Director, Dr. Varmus said that he had very little money at his disposal to direct toward priorities. He pointed out that the Institute and Center (IC) Directors effectively control the money (which is directly appropriated to them each year) and that they pretty much "run the show" at NIH.
- His profound affection for NIH. He explained that he has appreciated NIH since working in the intramural program in 1968.
- He needed a job and likes to work. He remarked that the NCI position looked like "a great job" after resigning from Memorial Sloan-Kettering.
Specific Areas Requiring Attention (He noted that this list is not comprehensive). Dr Varmus also said that the National Cancer Advisory Board is planning to provide a comprehensive list of issues that he may want to consider taking on. In addition, Dr. Varmus plans to engage the broader community to help define a list of "answerable, provocative questions."
- Evidence – He explained that everything NCI does or says will be based on evidence.
- Importance of the Individual Intellect – While he stated that it's important to support team science and big science, he noted that the greatest achievements in science have almost always begun with the individual scientist trying to answer a specific question.
- Importance of the Community of Scientists – He explained that he will try to ensure access to data, publications and scientific materials for the scientific community at large, especially when that information has been the result of government support and, in effect, the taxpayers.
Other Interesting Observations from Dr. Varmus
- Clinical Trials System – He said that we are at an important moment and have a remarkable opportunity to improve our Nation's clinical trials system.
- Utilization of the NIH Clinical Center – He expressed concern that the NIH Clinical Center is not be optimally utilized.
- Cancer Drug Approval and Regulation – He noted that this is an area of priority for him and applauded Dr. Collins' efforts to work with FDA. He also noted that he intends to assess how far NCI should branch into the pipeline of drug therapeutics.
- How to Succeed in Controlling Cancer – Dr. Varmus intends to passionately pursue the question of why we have not succeeded in preventing and treating cancer at the level that we have aspired.
- The Association between Obesity and certain Cancers – In the context of this association, Dr. Varmus pointed out that the questions (over the past 5-8 years) that cancer researchers have been asking "have not been succinctly defined."
- In addition to his interest in studying biological interventions, Dr. Varmus said that he is interested in examining other issues, such as the importance of training scientists, the effective dissemination of cancer information, and the assessment of cancer research infrastructure needs.
- Including Cancer as part of the Global Health Agenda – Dr. Varmus said that he has always been interested in science and the global health community and expressed concern that cancer is not presently part of the global health agenda.
- Comparative Effectiveness Research and Health Information Technology – Dr. Varmus talked about the importance of getting new knowledge into the practice of oncology.
- Dr. Varmus said that NCI is not able to do everything that needs to be done to control and prevent cancer. Therefore, he expressed a strong desire to establish strong relationships and partnerships with many others, including industry, other NIH ICs, the FDA, the CDC, as well as advocacy groups and scientific societies. He specifically said that there needs to be strong interactions between NIH and industry.
- Dr. Varmus said that he intends to appoint numerous deputies and highlighted the fact that Douglas Lowy, MD has agreed to serve as one of his deputies. Dr. Lowy's research was instrumental in the development of the HPV vaccine. Dr. Varmus also announced that NCI's current Deputy Director, Anna Barker, PhD, will be leaving her position in August.
- In response to a question about former NCI Director Andrew von Eschenbach's goal to eliminate suffering and death caused by cancer by the year 2015, Dr. Varmus said that in this Administration everything possible will be done to control and fight cancer, but stated that we "can't make promises that are elusive."
- In response to a question about how advocacy groups can work with him, Dr. Varmus said that his "door is a lot more open than people have been expressing to the press."
- In response to a question about whether he will have an intramural lab, Dr. Varmus said that he will have a lab that is located within the National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI).
**Summary provided by Jon Retzlaff, Managing Director of Science Policy and Government Affairs, American Association for Cancer Research
Gillian Irwin Todd
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