NIH Revisited

After three decades of trying to accomplish things in Washington, I finally found it was much easier to realize a lifelong personal ambition. Which was to return to the area where I grew up. And to spend most of my time writing.

So, here I am. Back on Cape Ann.

This is the “lesser known” Cape in Massachusetts, North of Boston. But it has been home to a successful American fishing industry since the 1620’s. At least until recent misguided government restrictions have imperiled it (see my Daily Dispatch “Whole Foods Misses the Forest for the Seas” for more on that topic).

Cape Ann is also a world-class destination for artists. And history is alive everywhere you look.

I’m happy now spending my days surrounded by the sheltering effects of the sea. Where it is usually 10 degrees cooler in summer, and 10 degrees warmer in winter, compared to the adjacent mainland. 

So I don’t (and can’t) really miss Washington D.C., which arguably has the worst climate in the country. (And that’s just talking about the weather). I’m also fortunate to have old friends from Washington migrate here during the summer and fall.

In fact, just a few weeks ago, a dear friend and colleague from my days at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) came for a visit with his wife. We enjoyed several days in the sun, sharing some fine bottles of wine and the occasional cigar outside on the deck under the stars. And we reminisced. 

As we puffed away on our Cohibas, we talked about our 1988 study, which found the “anomalous” result that cigar and pipe smokers were healthier than non-smokers. And we chuckled about the “new” publication from the National Cancer Institute (NCI), Monograph # 9, which clearly establishes what we’d discovered a quarter of a century ago as young scientists. That smoking one or two cigars per day is not harmful and may indeed  be beneficial. 

And with silvery blue smoke wafting overhead, we both shrugged our shoulders and shook our heads, once again, that these findings—and those we made about light cigarette smoking—were set aside as soon as the NCI got what it was really looking for. Evidence that at more than half-a-pack per day, cigarette smoking was associated with poorer health. It was all they needed to condemn smoking carte blanche—whether or not the science truly supported it. 

From there, the conversation turned to the state of affairs today “on the inside.” My friend, you see, is still working in Washington, D.C. He is now responsible, among other duties, for a full-time office at NCI dealing with the fall-out from the synthetic beta-carotene disaster. (In the early 1980’s the NCI chose synthetic beta-carotene for a huge cancer prevention study. Which, after many years and millions of dollars, infamously showed that it actually raised cancer rates.) 

He remains a staunch advocate for cancer prevention. But he sheepishly admitted to me that he has to remain “on the fence”—given the misguided NCI beta-carotene fiasco that occurred more than two decades ago.

And despite my own exodus from the government, thanks to the ongoing tenure of colleagues and friends like this one, I remain privy to some insider information. He told me that the NCI has a new ringleader—Dr. Harold Varmus. But Varmus is hardly a fresh face in Washington. He served as Director of the entire NIH during the 1990s. And was just brought back from retirement to head the NCI. Apparently nobody else would take the job.  

This news reminded me of one of my early encounters with Varmus. I attended a lecture he gave at Pfizer Headquarters in NYC in the mid-1990’s. His subject was “New Developments at NIH.” And one of the newest and biggest developments at that time was the creation of the Office of Alternative Medicine. But rather than celebrating this accomplishment, Varmus minimized and even demeaned it.

With a wry smile, I told my friend how utterly satisfying it was when, following the lecture, two out of three questions from the audience were about alternative medicine. 

But Varmus was always able to “talk the talk.” So I wasn’t surprised to hear that just this month, he’d convened a “blue ribbon” panel to critically review every aspect of NCI research.  

Unfortunately, it seems that he may be just as dismissive of alternative medicine now as he was 15 years ago. Varmus is convinced that all the answers to human health can be grown out of  a test tube. And rather than turning attention (and funding) to further development of proven, natural cancer cures, he’s focused on the chimera of ever more high-tech biomedical biomarkers.

I suggested—only half ironically—that perhaps a white ribbon is more appropriate for this “new” reign at the NCI. Because if you ask me, this is the ultimate surrender in the 40-year long “War on Cancer.”

Taking all this in, I asked my friend, almost incredulously, how he can stay on at the NCI. He laughed, and said his wife asks him the same thing all the time.

“She says it’s become my ‘womb,’” he said ruefully.

I suggested a hysterectomy. But he is less than one year away from retiring with lifetime pension and benefits. He admitted he’s counting down the days.

“That could have been me,” I thought to myself with a sigh, staring up at the dazzling New England night sky. But I’ve never been more grateful that it isn’t.  My thoughts were interrupted when my dear old friend, looking out at the same scene, suddenly and wistfully said, “What was I still doing in Washington all those years?”