Cancer Institute Director Varmus Meets the Press

Harold Varmus

Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center

National Cancer Institute (NCI) Director Harold Varmus says his agency's budget problems don't just slow progress in fighting cancer; they may also be affecting the "accuracy" of papers by raising the pressure to publish quickly. With his usual candor, he also told reporters yesterday about his concerns about a bill that would set aside funding for specific cancers.

In a talk at the National Press Club entitled "What Impedes Cancer Research," the Nobel laureate and former National Institutes of Health (NIH) director (1993-1999) discussed a range of obstacles to the field, including the complex biology of cancer and science budgets that haven't kept pace with inflation since 2001. Despite a wealth of new knowledge and tools, "The pace of research is slower than it could be and should be," Varmus said.

Moreover, record-low grant success rates of 17% at NIH and 14% at NCI are having "secondary effects" including "a severe feeling of competition and stress" that discourages young scientists and foreign investigators who are considering a move to the United States.

In addition, Varmus said, financial pressures may be influencing "accuracy," referring to reports that industry has been unable to replicate academic researchers' studies. "The need to get things published and get your work out there has probably decreased the accuracy of the work that gets published," Varmus said.

He also blames pressure to publish in top journals such as Cell, Nature, and Science when important findings also appear in other journals. One solution he's pushing at NIH is to have an investigator's biosketch, a statement about the investigator's background and research accomplishments, discuss how his or her work has contributed to the field and rely less on whether they've published in high impact journals.

Varmus also discussed a bill that was recently passed by the House of Representatives and a companion bill in the Senate that both require that NCI give special attention to "recalcitrant cancers." The House bill originally would have set aside funds specifically for pancreatic cancer and put funding decisions in the hands of advocates. Varmus agreed with a questioner that such bills are "a slippery slope" that can lead to a proliferation of narrowly targeted funding requests. If a targeted bill passes, "Very quickly every other advocacy group will say, 'I want that too.' " But he noted that progress in basic science is hard to predict; studies in one area often contribute to big advances in another.

Among Varmus's other remarks:

  • On the "sequestration," or looming, across-the-board federal budget cuts if Congress and the Obama Administration can't agree on how to cut the deficit: "I don't like it and I assume it won't happen." Varmus said that although NCI's $5 billion budget would be cut by 8%, because so much funding is set aside for ongoing grants, the cut could slash by 40% the funds available for new and competing grants.
  • On the lack of discussion of biomedical research in the presidential campaign: "I don't think it's the fault of the candidates that there's not been a whole lot said about medical research." He would like to see questions in the upcoming debates on issues such as stem cell research and the balance of basic and applied research.
  • On a front-page story Sunday in The New York Times that critics claim hyped the significance of an NCI-sponsored project that catalogued genetic changes in breast cancer: The finding that breast cancer breaks down into four subtypes is "no real breakthrough in that sense" because researchers had already identified the four types. Instead, the importance of the study is that it has yielded "a much denser genetic landscape of what the genetic abnormalaties are" that could eventually translate into better diagnostics and treatments.
  • On a "moon shot" plan announced last week by MD Anderson Cancer Center Director Ronald DePinho to dramatically improve survival for eight cancers: "We encourage our cancer center directors to be ambitious," Varmus said. He added, however, that "I'm not going to comment on his particular take on this."