DNA pioneer James Watson takes aim at “cancer establishments”
By Sharon Begley,reuters.com – (Reuters) – A day after an exhaustive national report on cancer found the United States is making only slow progress against the disease, one of the country’s most iconic – and iconoclastic – scientists weighed in on “the war against cancer.” And he does not like what he sees.
James Watson, co-discoverer of the double helix structure of DNA, lit into targets large and small. On government officials who oversee cancer research, he wrote in a paper published on Tuesday in the journal Open Biology, “We now have no general of influence, much less power … leading our country’s War on Cancer.”
On the $100 million U.S. project to determine the DNA changes that drive nine forms of cancer: It is “not likely to produce the truly breakthrough drugs that we now so desperately need,” Watson argued. On the idea that antioxidants such as those in colorful berries fight cancer: “The time has come to seriously ask whether antioxidant use much more likely causes than prevents cancer.”
That Watson’s impassioned plea came on the heels of the annual cancer report was coincidental. He worked on the paper for months, and it represents the culmination of decades of thinking about the subject. Watson, 84, taught a course on cancer at Harvard University in 1959, three years before he shared the Nobel Prize in medicine for his role in discovering the double helix, which opened the door to understanding the role of genetics in disease.
Other cancer luminaries gave Watson’s paper mixed reviews.
“There are a lot of interesting ideas in it, some of them sustainable by existing evidence, others that simply conflict with well-documented findings,” said one eminent cancer biologist who asked not to be identified so as not to offend Watson. “As is often the case, he’s stirring the pot, most likely in a very productive way.”
There is wide agreement, however, that current approaches are not yielding the progress they promised. Much of the decline in cancer mortality in the United States, for instance, reflects the fact that fewer people are smoking, not the benefits of clever new therapies.
“The great hope of the modern targeted approach was that with DNA sequencing we would be able to find what specific genes, when mutated, caused each cancer,” said molecular biologist Mark Ptashne of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York. The next step was to design a drug to block the runaway proliferation the mutation caused. Read more…