His stint at a missionary hospital in UP’s Raebareli helped American Nobel prize winning scientist Dr Harold Varmus, once director of USA’s National Cancer Institute, develop cancer research links with India.
Dr Varmus, currently in India with other Nobel Laureates for the Nobel Prize Series 2017 organised by Nobel Media, AB, Sweden with the ministry of science and technology, was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1989 for discovery of the cellular origin of retroviral oncogenes (some viruses carry genes, known as oncogenes, which can cause cancer in infected cells). He was at medical school when his interest in practising medicine in countries like India, especially to research tropical diseases, led him to the Raebareli hospital. The time he spent there was “interesting”, but he thinks the quality of medicine was not “as high as it might have been.”
The India assignment broadened his view of the world and gave him a perspective which made a difference when he as director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), an agency of the US Department of Health and Human Services, was able to initiate programmes expanding the involvement of NIH in poor countries, “which carries over to the present day”. Even as director of the National Cancer Institute, a post he was appointed to by Barack Obama, Dr Varmus took note of the increasing mortality from cancer in poor countries and started a Centre for Global Health that serves many countries and has an office in Delhi. It has a number of projects underway to build partnerships to strengthen cancer research capacity and networks in the region. “This is a consequence of my work done in India because I became quite interested in problems of how you share advance information about medicine now available in the traditional strong economies like the US and Europe,” says Dr Varmus.
Currently the Lewis Thomas University Professor of Medicine at Weill Cornell Medicine and a Senior Associate at the New York Genome Centre, Varmus did a BA in literature before he took up medicine. The transition happened because he realised he could read books and think about literature even while studying medicine.
However, the real love affair with science began when he was “thrown into a laboratory” at the NIH during the Vietnam war. All doctors had to serve in the military and do some national service and it was possible for young people to fulfill their obligations to the country by working in the public health service. “I was able to go to NIH to learn something about how science was done and got excited and decided to stay with it. I like talking about it because in the US people often feel they have to get pretty advanced in science while they are still at college to have a great career and that isn’t true. You can delay your ultimate career destination by quite a lot and still do okay and it’s good to have an interest in other things besides science,” he says.
On the future of cancer research, Dr Varmus sees India as a country with potential because of its very strong computational science community. A single tumour can generate a huge amount of data. “The first thing that we as scientists are likely to do with the cancer is look for the mutations and changes in the chromosomes of the cancer cells that are responsible for a cell behaving like a cancer cell. So for any cancer that can’t be cured by doing surgery, it’s important to know about the genetic basis of cancer that is generating that tremendous amount of data and the computational tool to interpret that data,” he says. Technology can help tremendously.
The challenges before cancer researchers today is that though it’s easier to get data, interpretation of that information is difficult. “Knowing the meaning of the finding, having the skills that allow a computer to help you make a determination of what is important is critical,” Dr Varmus says.