Harold E. Varmus was born on December 18, 1939, on Long Island. In 1957, Varmus entered Amherst College, followed by graduate studies at Harvard University. Within the year, he transferred to Columbia College of Physicians and Surgeons. From 1966 to 1968, he worked as a medical officer at Columbia-Presbyterian Hospital and then joined Ira Pastan's laboratory at the National Institutes of Health as a Clinical Associate. In 1970, he became a post-doctoral fellow at UC San Francisco. By 1972, Varmus had became a regular member of the faculty in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology, ascending to the rank of Professor by 1979.
He was a co-recipient (along with J. Michael Bishop) of the 1989 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for discovery of the cellular origin of retroviral oncogenes.
From 1993 to 2000, he served as Director of the National Institutes of Health. Since January 2000, he has served as President of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City. He is co-founder and chairman of the board of directors of the Public Library of Science, a not-for-profit open access publisher.
California Scientist of the Year (1982)
Albert Lasker Basic Medical Research Award (1982)
Passano Foundation Award (1983)
Armand Hammer Cancer Prize (1984)
Alfred P. Sloan Prize from the General Motors Cancer Foundation (1984)
Gairdner Foundation International Award (1984)
American College of Physicians Award (1987)
National Academy of Science (1984)
American Academy of Arts and Sciences (1988)
The following press release from the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences describes Varmus' work:
The discovery awarded with this year's Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine concerns the identification of a large family of genes which control the normal growth and division of cells. Disturbances in one or some of these so-called oncogenes (Gk ónco(s) bulk, mass) can lead to transformation of a normal cell into a tumor cell and result in cancer.
Michael Bishop and Harold Varmus used an oncogenic retrovirus to identify the growth-controlling oncogenes in normal cells. In 1976 they published the remarkable conclusion that the oncogene in the virus did not represent a true viral gene but instead was a normal cellular gene, which the virus had acquired during replication in the host cell and thereafter carried along.
Bishop's and Varmus' discovery of the cellular origin of retroviral oncogenes has had an extensive influence on the development of our knowledge about mechanisms for tumor development. Until now more than 40 different oncogenes have been demonstrated. The discovery has also widened our insight into the complicated signal systems which govern the normal growth of cells.