President Barack Obama has nominated Harold E. Varmus, M.D., the Nobel Prize-winning scientist for studies showing how certain normal genes could cause cancer when they went awry; to serve as the 14th director of the National Cancer Institute (NCI). Dr. Varmus served as director of the National Institutes of Health in the 1990s, a period that saw the start of the effort to double its budget.
“Dr. Varmus will bring to the NCI an unrivaled appreciation for how basic science serves as the foundation for understanding healthy function as well as disease conditions,” said Elizabeth H. Blackburn, Ph.D., president of the AACR. “His visionary leadership will allow NCI to continue leading the way in programs aimed at preventing disease, improving health and reducing suffering from cancer.”
“There are tremendous new opportunities in cancer research, with knowledge about the human genome and how cells are wired,” Dr. Varmus said in an interview. “Everyone feels a sense of accelerating success. There are amazing prospects.”
Currently, Dr. Vamus serves as the president of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center as well as serving as the co-chairman of President Obama’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology.
This nomination has caused some serious concern in the cancer advocacy world. Frances M. Visco, president of the National Breast Cancer Coalition, said she had questions about how Dr. Varmus would work with advocacy groups. Dr. Varmus is both a brilliant man and an extraordinary bench scientist, but will he be able to provide the leadership we need to move basic science into the clinic?
We also need to have concern about Dr. Varmus’s willingness to make cancer a number one priority. Advocacy groups for specific diseases are among the “strongest supporters” of the N.I.H., Dr. Varmus has said, but they often ignore the fact that money for their disease may be taken from promising research in other areas.
My hope is that Dr. Vamus’s stint at Memorial Sloane-Kettering Cancer Center has helped to change his perspective and his orientation away from just bench science to patient oriented services. I am provided with hope that given the fact that during his tenure at Sloane, the hospital has significantly increased its role in sponsoring clinical trials, which demonstrates a more patient oriented outlook.
Joel T Nowak, MA, MSW
Personally, I’m inclined to believe that the basic science sponsored by NIH should have priority over clinical applications. I think clinical studies should be supported too, but I like a greater emphasis on the basic science.
Here are my reasons for that:
1. Private industry, i.e., drug and biotech companies, shy away from basic science but fund clinical applications extensively.
2. Basic science is the foundation on which clinical applications are laid.
3. A lot of the money spent on clinical studies turns out to have been wasted when it is discovered that the scientific assumptions underlying it are false or oversimplified.
4. Basic science is, relatively speaking, much cheaper than clinical application because it involved test tubes and mice instead of patients. The knowledge gained per dollar is often a lot higher – even though we often don’t yet know how to convert that knowledge into treatment. A lot of the clinical research results are ambiguous too when it comes to making recommendations for treatment.
Unfortunately, there’s a lot of flailing around in both basic and applied medical research. Some of the research is done mainly to win academic stature for basic research, or impress patients and hospitals for clinical research. But that’s probably going to be a fact of life for the foreseeable future.
Thanks for your great website and contributions to the cancer community.
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