The Most Exciting Cancer Research Today
James Watson is an American molecular biologist best known for his discovery of the structure of DNA with Francis Crick in 1953. He was born in Chicago in 1928 and attended the University of Chicago for his undergraduate degree in zoology. While pursuing his Ph.D at Indiana University, Watson became interested in molecular biology, which led him to the University of Cambridge's Cavendish Laboratory for postdoctoral research. There he met Crick, the two recognized a common interest in discovering the structure of DNA. Watson, Crick, and another researcher Maurice Wilkins would later share the 1962 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for their work in this field.
In 1956, Watson became a junior member of Harvard University's Biological Laboratories, where he quickly advanced to the position of full professor. Then in 1968 he became director of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory (CSHL) on Long Island, New York, where he shifted his research emphasis to the study of cancer. Between 1988 and 1992, Watson was also associated with the National Institutes of Health, spearheading the Human Genome Project. In 2007 he became the second person, after molecular biologist Craig Venter, to have his entire genome sequenced. Watson remained involved with CSHL, as president and later as chancellor, until 2007, when he retired following a controversy over comments he made claiming blacks are less intelligent than whites.
Watson has written many books, including the seminal textbook "The Molecular Biology of the Gene" (1965), his bestseller "The Double Helix" (1968) about his discovery of the DNA structure, and his memoir "Avoid Boring People" (2007).
Question: How successful is cancer treatment now?
James Watson: Oh, we are now highly successful with about 20% of cancer. In fact, initially, you know, we can do something. The problem is, that cancers tend to get more dangerous and resistant to chemotherapy. And today we postpone a lot of deaths from cancer, but we don’t finally prevent enough of them. So that if there was no cancer research, 700,000 Americans would die of cancer every year, today 600,000. A lot of them live longer now, and that’s good. I’d like to move to a situation where you know we only lose 100,000 each year—that is, we've prolonged it enough. And I think there’s a real chance we can move to such a situation over the next decade.
Question: What are the most exciting avenues of cancer research?
James Watson: Well, now we’ve been focusing on sort of the organized cell, what we call the epithelial cell. Most human cancers are of tissues lining glands and they’re likely touching each other so liquids don’t pass through the membranes, et cetera. But then there are other cells in our body which are not tightly organized and mobile. We call them mesenchymal. And most cancers progress toward a mesenchymal form, which up to now we’ve not very successfully treated.
But I think we... I think there’s the hope, or it’s my hope, that whereas we know there are many different forms of cancer to start with, they all progress toward something similar, in a sense, similar to a stem cell, a differentiated stem cell. So that if you’re killed by prostate cancer, it may be not that different than being, you know, dying from lung cancer or a melanoma. That is, the bad cells have roughly the same biochemistry, underlying biochemistry. And so if we can kill one of the sort of terminal-stage cancer, we might be able to do all of it. At least, that’s my hope. I know there are few other people who think my way, but the slogan you get now is: "They’re all going to be genetically different. And we’ll have to use personalized therapy.”
Well, before I was treated I would like my DNA to be looked at. But the best way to finally cure me would be not to focus on the unique features, but the features common to all cancer cells.
Recorded on September 28, 2010
Interviewed by Paul Hoffman
Most doctors believe that different cancers require personalized therapies, but studying their common biochemistry could lead to a universal treatment.
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