Much of Dr. Varmus' scientific work was conducted during 23 years as a faculty member at the University of California, San Francisco, where he and Dr. J. Michael Bishop and their coworkers demonstrated the cellular origins of the oncogene of a chicken retrovirus. This discovery led to the isolation of many cellular genes that normally control growth and development and are frequently mutated in human cancer. For this work, Bishop and Varmus received many awards, including the 1989 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine. Dr. Varmus is also widely recognized for his studies of the replication cycles of retroviruses and hepatitis B viruses, the functions of genes implicated in cancer, and the development of mouse models for human cancer (the focus of much of the current work in his laboratory).
In 1993, Dr. Varmus was named by President Clinton to serve as the Director of the National Institutes of Health, a position he held until the end of 1999. During his tenure at the NIH, he initiated many changes in the conduct of intramural and extramural research programs, recruited new leaders for most of the important positions at the NIH, planned three major buildings on the NIH campus, and helped to increase the NIH budget from under $11 to nearly $18 billion.
In addition to authoring over 300 scientific papers and four books, including an introduction to the genetic basis of cancer for a general audience, Dr.Varmus has been an advisor to the Federal government, pharmaceutical and biotechnology firms, and many academic institutions. Currently, he serves on the World Health Organization's Commission on Macroeconomics and Health, advisory committees on electronic publishing, and a National Research Council panel on genetically modified organisms. He has been a member of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences since 1984 and of the Institute of Medicine since 1991.
A native of Freeport, Long Island, Varmus is the son of Dr. Frank Varmus, a general practitioner, and Beatrice Varmus, a psychiatric social worker. After graduating from Freeport High School, he majored in English literature at Amherst College and earned a master's degree in English at Harvard University. He is a graduate of Columbia University's College of Physicians and Surgeons and served on the medical house staff at Columbia-Presbyterian Hospital. His scientific training occurred first as a Public Health Service officer at the NIH, where he studied bacterial gene expression with Dr. Ira Pastan, and then as a post-doctoral fellow with Dr. Bishop at the University of California, San Francisco.
He is married to Constance Casey, a journalist and horticulturist; their two sons, Jacob and Christopher, also live in New York City.