New czar for cancer war

The National Cancer Institute (NCI)—command central for the war on cancer for the last 40 years—will be run by a new general come July. Last week, President Obama nominated Harold Varmus to replace a Bush appointee who, by all accounts, wasn’t the right man to run the $5.1 billion enterprise.

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Hope and despair in the war against cancer

The NCI’s caught a lot of flak in the recent past for not doing the right thing, either for the scientists that get its funds, or for the tax-paying public that is supposed to benefit from the research. Here’s what Jim Watson, probably the NCI’s most vociferous, high-profile critic at the moment, had to say in a NYTimes op-ed last year:

“…the institute has become a largely rudderless ship in dire need of a bold captain who will settle only for total victory. President Obama must choose strong new leadership for the institute from among our nation’s best cancer researchers; it also needs a seasoned developer of new pharmaceuticals who can radically speed up the pace at which anticancer drugs are developed and clinically tested.” (emphasis is mine)

Well, a scientist who’s managed to have a stellar academic research career while also developing blockbuster anti-cancer drugs is probably a mythical creature. But Varmus comes close. His work on retroviral oncogenes and their cellular origins won him the Nobel Prize. And he’s spent the last 10 years on the cancer war’s frontlines as the President of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center (NYC), the mother-ship of cancer care and treatment.

There have been, however, a few murmurs of discontent, mostly about Varmus’s history with the pharma industry during his tenure as the director of the NIH during the Clinton years. He played a key role in getting rid of the “reasonable pricing clause,” which was geared toward preventing pharma companies from charging “exorbitant” prices for anti-cancer drugs that were developed with the assistance of taxpayer money. His reason for doing so was to encourage more effort and investment into cancer drug development by smaller pharmas and biotechs that might have otherwise been scared off by the clause.

This turned out to be an awful solution to a difficult problem. It helped the big pharmas make out like bandits with their drug sales, but never really enticed smaller pharmas and biotechs into tackling cancer drug development with adequate (financial) gusto. So there needs to be a major rethink on the way the NCI is going to finance the cancer war, a point discussed brilliantly by veteran cancer chronicler Sharon Begley in Newsweek recently.

But if anyone can move the NCI away from a pure basic research-based focus and bring more translational research-based projects into its portfolio, it’s Varmus. Good luck to him!

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