Most doctors believe that different cancers require personalized therapies, but studying their common biochemistry could lead to a universal treatment.
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