Watson dings genetics, Irish, fellow Nobelist

by jeeg 27. March 2013 00:07

James Watson, who earned the Nobel Prize for helping figure out the structure of DNA, said Thursday that sequencing genes isn't proving to be particularly useful in fighting such diseases as cancer and that much of the research being done on the subject is irrelevant.

Watson made the remarks during an interview with U-T San Diego that was conducted at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, where he joked about the intelligence of the Irish and got into a testy public argument about research with University of California San Diego Nobel laureate Roger Tsien.

In 2007, the iconoclastic Watson was forced to resign as chancellor of the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in Long Island, N.Y. after he suggested to a British newspaper that blacks are not as smart as whites.

Watson, 84, visited the Salk to give a public lecture on the roles that oxidants and anti-oxidants might play in cancer and diabetes. The Salk is deeply involved in cancer research, and it has plans to spend millions of dollars on new sequencing machines to better explore how mutant genes contribute to disease. La Jolla has become a major research center, in part, because Watson and Francis Crick resolved the structure of DNA in 1953, opening up genetics and molecular biology. Watson also was the first director of the Human Genome Project.

While noting that genetics is vital, Watson said, "You could sequence 150,000 people with cancer and its not going to cure anyone. It might give you a few leads, but it's not, to me, the solution. The solution is good chemistry. And that's what's lacking. We have a world of cancer biology trained to think genes. They don't think chemistry at all."

Watson, who had his entire genome sequenced, said the current level of cancer research funding is enough to find a cure. But he added that "most of the experiments we do are irrelevant ... We're not going to cure cancer by doubling the money. We're going to do it by being more intelligent. The money thing is just a red herring of people not thinking."

About five years ago, Watson was diagnosed with prostate cancer. He began to take metformin, a comparatively inexpensive drug that is widely used to treat diabetes. Watson says that metformin could be useful in fighting cancer.

"Metformin seems to me our only real clue into the business (of fighting cancer)," Watson said. "It seems to kill the nastiest cells, not the un-nasty. We don't know how it works, exactly."

His comments are partly based on the work of Reuben Shaw, a Salk biologist who recently published a widely-noted paper that says phenformin, a derivative of the widely-used diabetes drug metformin, decreased the size of lung tumors in mice and increased the animals' survival.

Watson cited Shaw's work during an hour-long public lecture in which he spoke with certitude while criticizing the work of other scientists. The remarks didn't go over well with UCSD's Tsien, who shared the 2008 Nobel Prize in chemistry for research that greatly advanced science's understanding of how cells work.

Tsien, who was sitting in the second row, tried to add a different perspective to what Watson had been saying about oxidants and antioxidants. Watson cut him off. Tsien pressed on. Watson got agitated and said, "All you have to do is think clearly and these difficulties vanish."

As an audience of 400 looked on, they continued to spar, and Watson went right at Tsien, saying, "You don't want to win!"

Tsien then responded by suggesting that Watson could find evidence for one of his speculations about the effects of exercise, saying. 'Go look up the work of James O'Keefe.' "

Salk biologist Ron Evans stepped in, easing the tension with his own take on exercise research. Watson then brought the lecture to an end with an off-hand remark about the waning days of the late French critic and essayist Marcel Proust.

When asked about the exchange after the lecture, the 61-year-old Tsien said, "You should take all elderly scientists with a grain of salt -- including me."

Watson's sharp remarks weren't limited to cancer research. Early in his talk, he recounted that he had difficulties in the early 1990s with Bernadine Healy, the first woman to serve as director of the National Institutes of Health.

"Bernadine Healy didn't like me, I didn't like her. She's now dead, but even if she were alive today ...," Watson said, drawing laughter from the audience. Then, without explanation, he referred to the "historic curse of the Irish, which is not alcohol, it's not stupidity. But it's ignorance."

Healy died of brain cancer in 2011. She was 67.

"(Watson) likes to provoke people," Tsien said. "He enjoys being politically incorrect."

It also can be difficult to tell when Watson is joking. He was asked Thursday what he thinks of the news that the family of the late Francis Crick -- who spent much of his career at the Salk -- intends to auction off his Nobel medal.

"Oh, I hope it sells for a lot of money because it would mean that mine would be worth a lot of money," Watson said, chuckling. "I'm not counting on it."

Gary Robbins, UT San Diego


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