Harold Varmus and the Provocative Questions Project

Robert Langreth at Bloomberg News:

440221Why do obese people get cancer more often? How can some turtles live more than a century without ever developing tumors while mice can develop them in a year? Could treatments that hold tumor cells in check without destroying them keep people alive longer?

Answering questions like these may lead to the next big cancer breakthroughs, said Harold Varmus, director of the U.S. National Cancer Institute, in an interview. The Nobel Prize winner said the NCI would spend at least $15 million this year in a new initiative to answer 24 “provocative questions” that researchers have often neglected.

“In an effort to stop people from obsessing over the fact that the budget is not growing, I’ve been trying to engage them in workshops to define the great unanswered questions in cancer research,” Varmus, 72, said in an interview at Bloomberg’s headquarters in New York. “We’re trying to drive science in a novel way.”

Spending for the Bethesda, Maryland-based institute Varmus has led since July 2010 will decline to $5.07 billion in the 2012 fiscal year from $5.1 billion in 2010. The provocative question project will try to create a middle ground between top- down big science projects, and relying on scientists to come up with their own ideas, according to a commentary published in Nature magazine this week by Varmus and Ed Harlow, a cancer researcher at Harvard Medical School in Boston and senior adviser to Varmus.

More here. [Thanks to Stefan Saal.]