James Watson – “I worry about getting shorter”

So, the great thing about working at a prestigious research institute that is obsessed with genetics is that we get some great speakers; this time it was James Watson. You don’t know who that is, do you? For those uninitiated in the ways of the science nerd – Watson won the Nobel prize for Physiology or Medicine with Francis Crick (a Northamptoner) and Maurice Wilkins for discovering, along with Rosalind Franklin, the structure of deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA), the composition of genes. Not long before they discovered DNA, it was thought that heritable traits – genes – were proteins. DNA is actually a sugar. He’s a sort of a science-king.

He’s a bit old now (83) and like many olds he’s prone to a bit of casual racism. Allegedly. A bit like your granny. We heard he was coming, and we knew it was going to be a corker. We weren’t disappointed – in the informal chat with a group of young enthusiastic scientists, he said we were all a bit scared of the chinese because there were so many of them. I’m sure that was tongue in cheek. In the ensuing questions he confirmed the importance of the legendary Eagle pub “we ate lunch there every day”. Anyone in science will point out that most interesting discoveries stem from trips to the pub or tea-breaks. Watson despaired at the lack of heating in houses in 1950s Cambridge and was amused by the etiquette “Francis had to write a letter to Maurice and Maurice had to write back before Francis would go down to London and visit Maurice’s lab”.

Watson outed himself as an atheist; I’ve not encountered many americans so vocal about not believing in god – quite something in a country that rates atheists as less trustworthy than all other people of faith. But he is a man of science and has clearly applied this to all aspects of his life. He is at least consistent. He declared that DNA is god (I’m still waiting for the Higgs Boson tbh), and his response to alternative medicine: “bulls***”. On his political leanings, he dismisses republicans in the same breath as god, though he has become increasingly irritated by the leftest camp and its embracing of woo, vegetarian hippy-ness and alternative medicine. What was noticeable was his dissmissal of the importance of protein structure and the function in life, as well as changes that were unrelated to genes such as environmental factors. He came across as someone who holds genetics in high regard, almost to the detriment of other aspects of biology.  He clearly isn’t afraid to speak his mind and doesn’t suffers fool at all; brash, but never dull, we were in for a treat.

Image: The Science Museum, Who Am I

The lecture theatre (incidentally, named after Francis Crick) was packed, there was literally nowhere left to stand. His talk was rather optimistically titled “Curing Incurable Cancer”. Becoming interested in studying cancer after his father’s younger brother died of it at a very young age, he studied under Salvador Luria at Indiana University where he was studying viruses that caused cancer. He says his PhD wasn’t in any way noteworthy, but he was reading, reading a lot, and became interested in studying genes.

Watson led the NIH side of the Human Genome Project (I might discuss this at some point, but expect it to be horrifically biased), but left over disputes relating to patenting genes. The US consortium patented genes as they were discovered, The Sanger Institute had to make their sequences publicly available. This led to what should have been a collaboration becoming highly competitive (see also “Why Craig Venter is Evil”). Watson says he left NIH because he thought DNA shouldn’t be patent. Respeck. Ten years on from sequencing the human genome, Watson sees the fruit of the project as a way to reveal the genes underlying cancer by being able to study the molecular pathways that lead to cancer. He himself was diagnosed with an easily treatable cancer, but was made further aware of how far we have to go in science’s efforts to sure cancer. During his talk he highlighted some exciting discoveries in cancer research.

Vitamin D has been show to have anti-cancer effects (though this is disputed), though the way it does this is unknown. Interestingly, some drugs used to treat heart problems, such as the foxglove derivative digoxin seems to have  beneficial effects. Watson points out that one key point in cancer is to prevent cancer spreading from the tumour around the body (metastasis). Signals that regulated the growth of blood vessels appear to be important and there are some drugs – notably Avastin – that seem to prevent cancer spreading. These drugs are still going through clinical trials, Watson was quite vocal about drug regulators  preferring people die of cancer than from drugs (I don’t entirely agree with him here), he also declared that lawyers are the enemy of civilisation (I couldn’t possibly comment).

Other situations linked to cancer are inflammation; signalling molecules released in the body during pain or inflammation – called cytokine – enhance cancer , perhaps the answer is to take a small amount of ibuprofen daily. Then again, this has not been tested in humans. The professor talk guided us back to, for me, something that was familiar territory. A protein I studied during my PhD, adenosine monophosphate activated protein kinase (AMPK). I know it as a metabolic fuel gauge; it is activated when you exercise, when the muscle cells in your body need energy, and it is switched off when you are resting or eating. Metformin is a drug used to treat diabetes, it’s off-patent and therefore comparatively cheap. When it is used in combination with normal chemotherapy drugs, it makes them more effective. He covered other developments such as targeting energy producing processes in tumour cells, and possible roles of chromosome modelling (shrug – this is where I point out I find cancer biology rather dull; it consists of studying intracellular biochemical reactions, I was trained as a physiologist . I’m glad someone is studying it, but it would drive me mad.)

James Watson forsees us (well, scientists who are interested in cancer biology) curing cancer within the next 10 years. For this to happen, scientists have to focus on actually curing cancer rather than just publishing papers (the papers published by a lab are directly linked to the ability to obtain money to run a lab.) This, he reasoned, would be doable if we put as much energy and resources into fighting cancer as we have at war…

we should get out of Afghanistan and go to war against cancer

My favourite quote – aside from the one in the title sums up James D. Watson

If we cure cancer, we’ve got another 10 years before we need to do anything else

Once we’ve dealt with cancer, we can then move on to figuring out the brain. This, he says, is what he’d research if he were entering scientific research now. Given that everyone studying cancer’s going to be out of a job in 10 years.

As one person who has had his DNA sequenced, he learned something he had suspected, while a keen consumer of ice-cream, he’d always struggled with stomach pain afterwards. the reason, it turns out he is lactose intolerant, and while he is now aware that he metabolises some drugs quite badly, his biggest concern now is that he seems to be shrinking

I do worry about being short

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