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Research climate must be enhanced: NCI director

Dec. 5, 2013, 9:17 AM

The director of the National Cancer Institute, Harold Varmus, M.D., told an overflow crowd at this year’s Orrin Ingram Distinguished Lecture that he is concerned about the climate for discovery research in the United States.

“The needle has in my view, under conditions of fiscal strain, swung too far in the direction of application of what we know, without leaving enough room for people … to think about the deep mysteries of biology and medicine,” he said.

National Cancer Institute director Harold Varmus, M.D., center, with Vanderbilt’s Jennifer Pietenpol, Ph.D., and William Pao, M.D., Ph.D., following his recent Flexner Discovery Lecture. (photo by Susan Urmy)

Varmus described the state of U.S. science that he entered as a young investigator around 1970, emphasizing the elements that supported discovery science and sharing “what resulted from that more open, less anxiety-ridden environment,” he said.

Those results included the series of studies demonstrating that retroviral oncogenes (cancer-causing genes in viruses) are mutated cellular genes that normally regulate cell growth and development. Varmus and J. Michael Bishop, M.D., received the 1989 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for these discoveries.

As NCI director, Varmus wants to foster an environment of the kind he experienced earlier in his career, he said.

“How do I ensure a role for unfettered discovery without clear objectives?”

Varmus outlined strategies being pursued by the NCI to preserve and enhance discovery. These include:

• Use discovery platforms to pursue clinical success.

• Focus on important, intractable problems (e.g., RAS: mutant RAS has been implicated in about one-third of cancers, but it has been “undruggable”).

• Let the community define great unanswered questions (Provocative Questions).

• Give free rein to powerful imaginations (Innovator Awards).

• Improve the environment for doing science.

“We’re fighting a battle against cancer for which we have some remarkable new tools. But if we don’t do the basic work required to make more effective weapons than those we currently have, if we just invest in applying the knowledge we have accumulated over the last decades, we’re going to have disappointed the public of the next century … and not had the experience in science that I think is so extraordinarily valuable for our species,” Varmus said.

The Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center sponsored Varmus’ lecture. For a complete schedule of the Flexner Discovery Lecture series and archived video of previous lectures, go to

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