Jan. 25, 2016

By William Sweet

While he thinks “moonshot” may have not been the best word for Vice President Joseph R. Biden’s new initiative to beat cancer, Harold E. Varmus ’61, Nobel Prize-winning scientist and former director of the National Cancer Institute, told Amherst students that with the right strategy, more successes against cancer may be coming.

“Cancer is many different diseases,” he said in the keynote address for the College’s annual Gerald R. Fink ’62 Bioscience Symposium.

“ Progress is going to occur on different fronts at different paces.” “I would say we need to reduce Biden’s ‘moonshot’ to a more realistic term,” said Varmus, referring to Biden’s enthusiastic reaction to the new assignment, announced during President Obama’s final State of the Union address recently.

Varmus is the Lewis Thomas University Professor of Medicine at the Meyer Cancer Center of Weill Cornell Medicine. During his address at Amherst, he talked to students about the advances made in treating and preventing cancer in the past half-century and outlined a strategy for strengthening Biden’s initiative: better prevention, a large research database and increased and stable funding for research.

“There is a long list of things we as citizens, scientists and physicians need to pay attention to,” he said. These include improving preventative services, especially among poor populations.

“We can do a lot more using what we know about tobacco and sunlight exposure,” he said.

“We need a lot more knowledge, a lot more research,” he continued. “There’s a lot of competition because money is scarce, and this is a problem.”

Harold E. Varmus ’61 and students
Harold E. Varmus ’61 and students

The symposium also included presentations by other alumni: George W. Carmany III ’62 and Gerald R. Fink ’62, who co-founded the annual symposium; Cuthbert Simpkins '69, who spoke about the violence intervention program he started as an attending trauma surgeon at the University of Maryland and RA Cowley Shock Trauma Center in Baltimore in the mid-1990s; and Minjee Kim '17, who spoke of her experience participating in biomedical research at the Whitehead Institute

Varmus majored in English at Amherst and went on to earn an M.D. from Columbia University. He served as president of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center and director of the National Institutes of Health before Obama appointed him as director of the National Cancer Institute, which he ran from 2010 to 2015.