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Harold Varmus, the first Nobel laureate to serve as the director of NIH - and the first scientist-director of NIH to run his own research lab on campus - has had what he deems an "exhilarating" time of it thus far: not only has the pace of scientific discovery been accelerating during the three years he's been in Bethesda but he has managed to steer NIH clear of the fiscal icebergs that have cut into, if not capsized, other federal agencies.
And he expects no less during his remaining three years - his estimated time of departure.
In an interview with The NIH Catalyst, Varmus reflected on his accomplishments at what he designated the "middle of my term," citing among them changes in institute leadership and the ascendancy of the collaborative attitude. An eloquent advocate of basic research, he also took pride in the elevation of the status of clinical research confirmed in the blueprints for a new Clinical Research Center here.
Q: With the 1996 elections now over, what are your plans for your "second
term" as NIH director?
Q: But you could decide to stay over.
Q: Would you consider staying at NIH to continue doing research here?
Q: What do you consider your accomplishments thus far, and what do you hope
to have accomplished by the time you leave?
The second achievement involves the clinical center and clinical research in general. There's no doubt that the new Clinical Research Center is going to be built and that it will have tremendous impact on life at NIH and on clinical research generally. In addition, I put together a very strong panel from the clinical research community, headed by David Nathan [president of the Dana Farber Cancer Institute in Boston], that made several recommendations about the way we train, recruit, finance, and otherwise provide an infrastructure for individuals doing clinical research. This is amazingly important as many of the basic sciences have matured to the point where clinical applications of laboratory discoveries are closer and closer to reality.
Some of the recommendations are already in place - for example, more loan-repayment programs. We've done that for clinical research here, and we're trying to extend that to investigators on the outside. Some of the training suggestions, too, have been put in place locally, and we'd like to see them in place more broadly. We're looking very carefully at recommendations regarding the GCRCs [General Clinical Research Centers].
[Another goal for NIH] is to achieve sufficient [budgetary] support so we at least keep ahead of inflation. We can no longer expect to get 10 and 20% increases, as sometimes occurred in the past. We're not going to be opening new institutes. Instead, what I'd like to see is steady growth and prompt attention to seizing new opportunities in science, identifying areas of emphasis, getting people to work together and share resources, and effectively interacting with the industrial sector, the private sector, making sure the money goes as far as possible.
We've had very good budgets in the past two years. Given the way the rest of the government fared, they were remarkable. I don't consider that a personal triumph so much as a triumph for the directors, who made extremely effective presentations; for the scientific community and other constituents of NIH, who were very strong advocates for our budget; for the remarkable leadership in Congress by John Porter [R-Ill.] and Mark Hatfield [R-Ore.] and many others; and for our supporters in the Department [of Health and Human Services], especially Donna Shalala, and in the White House. There are constraints, but we work as a team. If the institute directors continue as they have to advance the cause of NIH, we'll all rise with the incoming tide.
Varmus: Sure. There are some. Mark Hatfield is no longer in Congress. But I don't want to make predictions. We'll go forward with as strong a budget proposal from the president for FY 1998 as possible. We're in negotiations now with the White House, and we hope that Congress will act in our behalf with its usual bipartisan support.
Q: Have you learned anything in the time you've been here about dealing with
Congress and the White House that you might apply in the remaining three years?
Q: What realms of science do you think most benefit from the collaborative
approach at NIH?
Another important realm is the unravelling of the components of the genomes - in the plural, because the human genome is not the only important genome; this work is profoundly influencing every sphere of medical research. Genes become the glue to bind institutes together. We've seen institutes collaborate in the sense that matters most, that is, they've contributed money to a common pot to generate a center for the study of complex genetic traits, cooperatively run now in Baltimore [see story, "New Center to Tackle Disease"]. And everyone's paying attention to information as it arrives in GenBank, through the work of the Library of Medicine. It's a beehive.
Q: Do you see the Intramural Research Program undergoing any more major changes?
I've also been interested for a long time in developing a graduate program here. A Ph.D. program oriented around clinical problems is particularly appealing to me - not that one has to do clinical research to get a Ph.D., but every graduate student would have some time in the Clinical Center learning firsthand about some clinical problem. They could use that experience with disease as an informational backdrop and inspiration for doing high-quality laboratory research.
My advisory committee last week also suggested a program for people who had just gotten their Ph.D. to come here for one year before they go out as postdocs to do laboratory work. In that one year, they would get exposed to clinical problems. Another possibility would be to have Ph.D. students at other institutions around the country come to NIH for one year of exposure to clinical problems and then go back to [the home institution]. These are all worth thinking about, but the most fully developed of these ideas would be to have a Ph.D.-granting program in which the focus would be human physiology, with research programs built on intimate acquaintance with a clinical situation in the Clinical Center. The Clinical Center is a remarkable resource for teaching. Every time I go over there, I'm amazed at what nature has presented us.
Q: Would this cost a lot of money?
Varmus: NCI was in particularly difficult straits and clearly needed a very deep overhaul. The spectacular success there is due to [NCI Director] Rick Klausner's leadership and the willingness of people at NCI to pitch in and make very needed and important changes. Other institutes are undergoing reviews of their intramural programs. The NIMH review will be done in January; there are four others going on [NIAMS, NIA, NIDA, and NIAAA]; and there will be additional ones later. I don't expect changes as dramatic as those at the cancer institute, but I do expect significant differences in research emphases and changes in program content and the way the programs interface with extramural activities.
There's another type of review going on that people may not know about yet: I'm assembling small groups to provide independent advice to institute directors about their performance. I was surprised when I realized that institute directors can serve for a very, very long time without getting an independent review. Institute directors are unlikely to be criticized by their grantees due to the risk of reprisal. In general, we hesitate to criticize the person who is in charge of the treasury. But we all need corrective advice. I try to get it at least once a year by asking Tony Fauci [NIAID director] to run a principals-only, closed meeting of institute directors to elicit their frank opinions and come back to me with a list of the comments made - with no attribution. One of the dangers of my position is that the only person above me whom I see regularly is Donna Shalala [HHS secretary], but she doesn't know [day in and day out] what I do.
Q: Does it work?
Q: Can you give us any examples?
Q: Who will constitute the groups that will be giving advice to the institute directors?
Q: Do you anticipate gene therapy research and AIDS research proceeding any differently
as a result of the reconstitution of the RAC [Recombinant DNA Advisory Committee]
and last year's report of the NIH AIDS Research Program Evaluation Task Force [chaired
by Arnold Levine, chairman of the Molecular Biology Department at Princeton University]?
We're also all very much inspired by the discovery of the coreceptors [for HIV], actually a series of discoveries catalyzed by the fundamental discovery made in the intramural program by Ed Berger [NIAID] and colleagues, which really set this whole new field moving. This is one of those examples where a dramatic scientific discovery fertilizes a scientific field so that a whole crop of new investigators seems to have grown up instantly. And there's a lot to exploit in terms of treatment and prevention.
Varmus: There have been a lot of high points. I get a thrill when a major discovery is announced; I've been exhilarated by our budgetary success.
As for the lows, we're very frustrated by our difficulties in human embryo research. Mistakes were made in the very beginning in the way this work was described to the public and Congress - partly my fault, partly not - and I've been frustrated by the real difficulty in moving this very important new field of work ahead. This includes new contraceptive methods, understanding fertilization well enough to improve in vitro fertilization procedures, prospects for developing human embryonic stem cells that could have a tremendous role in transplantation in the future.
Q: Do you see any way to counter misapprehensions about this research?
Q: What about your own research? Do you like being an intramural researcher?
I also hear about the difficulty in working in locked labs [due to strict radiation security rules imposed last year]. . . . I never carry keys around. I hate it when I can't get into my own lab because the doors have to be locked because there's a low-level radioactive filter on a bench top. Having a lab puts me in touch with some of these realities.
I've also very much enjoyed my collaborations on campus. I've had the good fortune to tap into a lot of the richness of the intramural research program. It's been wonderful.
Q: Is it hard to balance your lab and administrative activities?
Q: Is there anything else youid like to say to The Catalyst's readers?
Q: Postdocs are worried about getting jobs. . . .
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Interest Group Gazette
We ring in another year with three new interest groups added to our ever-growing list of interest groups. There has also been a personnel change in the Genetics Interest Group: Robert Nussbaum (NCHGR) has stepped down as organizational head, and Elliot Gershon, NIMH, and Lynn Hudson, NINDS, have taken hold of the reins. The group meets the last Tuesday of each month from 4:00 to 5:30 p.m. in Building 49, Conference rooms A and B. For further information, contact Gershon at 496-3465 or <firstname.lastname@example.org>, or Hudson at 496-9660 or <email@example.com>.
The Molecular Psychiatry Interest Group held its first meeting on January 30. The purpose of the group is to bring together investigators from various clinical and basic science backgrounds - molecular genetics, neurobiology, physiology, pharmacology, and imaging - to explore common interests related to the fundamental biological mechanisms of psychiatric disorders. For more information, contact: Julio Licinio, Clinical Neuroendocrinology Branch, NIMH, at 496-6885; fax: 402-1561; or e-mail: <firstname.lastname@example.org>.
The NIH Reactive Oxygen Species Interest Group (NIH ROS Interest Group) was organized at the last monthly meeting last year of the Oxygen Club of Greater Washington, D.C., Inc. The co-organizers are Chuang Chiueh, NIMH, and Daniel Gilbert, NINDS. All members of the Oxygen Club who are NIH scientists are automatically members of the NIH ROS Interest Group. Oxygen Club members pay no dues to join the new group. All NIH scientists interested in the biological effects of reactive oxygen species are encouraged to join. Reactive oxygen species include the superoxide radical anion, peroxyl radicals, hydrogen peroxide, lipid hydroperoxides, hydroxyl radical, alkoxyl radicals, thiyl radicals, ozone, singlet oxygen, and the nitrogen free radicals (i.e., nitric oxide and nitrogen dioxide). The Oxygen Club was formed at NIH in 1987 and has sponsored two international symposia.
Meetings are held the second Friday of each month (September through May) at 4:00 p.m. in Building 49, Conference Rooms A and B. The NIH Oxygen Club web site is <http://rsb.info.nih.gov/o2-club/> and will also serve as the web site for the NIH ROS Interest Group. The next scheduled meetings are February 14, with Mordechai Chevion, Hebrew University-Hadassah Medical School, Jerusalem, discussing transition metals that promote oxidation; and March 14, with Ingeborg Hanbauer, NIH, discussing the toxic effect of lead mediated through oxygen free radicals.
Last but not least on the list of new interest groups is the Calcium Interest Group, which held its first business meeting (and official launching) January 14. The envisioned scope of the group includes stimulus-secretion coupling in neurons and endocrine cells, stimulus-contraction coupling in muscle, the role of calcium in cell proliferation, interactions among calcium stores and calcium entry pathways, and spatiotemporal aspects of signaling. Some techniques to be highlighted are calcium imaging and mathematical modeling. A standing meeting date, time, and location have not yet been determined. Contact these individuals for information:
--- Bev Stuart
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