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05/07/2003 07:00:00

Former NIH Director Harold Varmus to be Caltech Commencement Speaker

PASADENA, Calif. — Harold Varmus, Nobel laureate and former director of the National Institutes of Health, will be the keynote speaker at the 109th commencement ceremony at the California Institute of Technology at 10 a.m. June 13 on Beckman Lawn south of Beckman Auditorium.

Early estimates of the numbers of graduates include 260 bachelor's recipients, 59 master's, and 102 Ph.D. recipients, for a total of 421 graduates.

Varmus, who has been the president and chief executive officer of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City since January 2000, received his Nobel Prize for studies of the genetic basis of cancer.

Much of Varmus' scientific work was conducted during 23 years as a faculty member at UC San Francisco, where he and J. Michael Bishop 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.

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 at Memorial Sloan-Kettering).

In 1993, Varmus was named by President Bill Clinton to serve as the director of the National Institutes of Health, a position he held until the end of 1999. The NIH is the federal focal point for medical research in the United States and includes 27 separate institutes and centers. Its goal is to acquire new knowledge to prevent, detect, diagnose, and treat disease and disability, from the rarest genetic disorder to the common cold. It conducts its own research, supports research by others, helps train investigators, and fosters communication of health sciences information.

During his tenure at NIH, he initiated many changes in the conduct of intramural and extramural research programs, recruited new leaders at NIH, planned three major buildings on the NIH campus in Bethesda, Md., and helped to increase the NIH budget from under $11 billion 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, Varmus has been an advisor to the federal government, pharmaceutical and biotechnology firms, and many academic institutions.

Recently he served on the World Health Organization's Commission on Macroeconomics and Health, advisory committees on electronic publishing, and planning groups to enhance scientific activity in the developing world. 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 majored in English literature at Amherst College and earned a master's degree in English at Harvard. He is a graduate of Columbia University's College of Physicians and Surgeons, worked as a medical student in a hospital in India, 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, and then as a postdoctoral fellow with Bishop at U.C. San Francisco.

Married to journalist and horticulturalist Constance Casey, Varmus resides in New York City, as do their two sons, Jacob and Christopher.


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