Harold Elliot Varmus and John Michael Bishop, colleagues at University of California School of Medicine in San Francisco in San Francisco, shared the 1989 award in physiology or medicine for their discovery of the origin of cancer-causing oncogenes in certain types of viruses, so-called retroviruses. Oncogenes control the normal growth and division of cells ('onco' is Greek for bulk or mass) but problems in these oncogenes can Iead to transformation of a normal cell into a tumor cell and result in cancer. The first oncogenic virus was discovered by Peyton Rous in 1916. 'Rous virus' is a retrovirus, which uses a reverse transcriptase enzyme to turn infected RNA into DNA - effectively integrating the virus into the body’s make-up. lt was through investigating Rous virus that Bishop and Varmus demonstrated the origin of oncogenes. ln 1976 they published their conclusion that the oncogene was not a true viral gene but a normal gene which the virus had adopted through reverse transcriptase in the host cell.
Varmus was born in Oceanside on Long lsland, NY, in 1939, a third generation product of Polish/Austrian Jewish immigrants, and grew up in Florida, where his medic father was posted du ring the war. Harold had a healthy childhood, and in 1957, entered Amherst College, intending to prepare for medical school. However, his studies drifted from science to philosophy and English literature, and he became a politically active student journalist. After graduating with a BA in 1961 he studied Iiterature at Harvard but soon felt the Iure of medicine again, and left Harvard with an MA in 1962 to join Columbia College of Physicians and Surgeons. There his interest in medical research grew, while a term in a mission hospital in lndia served only to put him off normal medical practice.
He gained his MD in 1966 and worked at Columbia-Presbyterian Hospital from 1966-68. He then joined lra Pastan's Iaboratory at the National Institutes of Health. The thrill of laboratory science prompted Varmus to seek further training in molecular biology, specifically in tumor virology. This led him to join Bishop as a post-doctoral fellow at UC San Francisco in 1970, rising to the rank of professor by 1979. As well as his oncogene work with Bishop, Varmus worked on hepatitis B viruses with Don Ganem during the 1980s.
He served as director of the NIH from 1993-2000, during which time he was credited with nearly doubling the agency's budget. Since 2000, he has served as president of Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York, where a Iaboratory bears his name. He has several awards, most held jointly with Bishop, and is a member of the National Academy of Science and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. In 2001 he received the National Medal of Science. ln 1969 he married journalist Constance Casey. They have two sons.