Exclusive: TCS interviews discoverer of DNA James Watson

Toby McMaster – News Reporter 29 April 2013

60 years ago James Watson and Francis Crick published their famous paper on nature, in which they described the structure of DNA two months after they famously announced their discovery in Cambridge pub, The Eagle. Decades later, Watson still takes an active interest in science despite officially having retired.

On Tuesday night he gave a talk to the University of Cambridge Science Society on "Curing Incurable Cancer". He discussed how he believed the future of cancer research lay not in the sequencing of genomes, but in understanding the biochemistry behind cancer. He spoke of how drugs such as Metformin have been found to decrease both cancer and diabetes, and he believes there must be some fundamental link between these diseases which researchers are currently missing. He believes this is the presence of incorrectly folded proteins, molecular machines, within the cell.

Both Watson and his former research partner Francis Crick are as well-known as ever. Only two weeks ago a letter written by Crick to his then 12 year old son Michael fetched $5.3 million at Christie's auction house. The letter describes the proposed structure of DNA, explaining that he and James Watson believe they have found the process "by which life comes from life". Crick's Nobel Prize medal also sold for over $2 million. 70% of the money raised will help fund future health research.

After his talk, TCS spoke to Watson about discovering DNA, his current interest in curing cancer and why he still loves Cambridge so much (see box, right).

60 years on from publishing your famous paper, what was that period like?

The March, April and when I went to Cold Spring Harbour in June were all magical. Then reality hit. I tried to solve the structure of RNA and got nowhere, so I wasted a couple of years there.

What do you think is the biggest obstacle to cancer research in the future?

The conservatism of the people treating the disease. You think you're making big steps forward by giving people another couple of months of life, you see a family and the father is dead. That doesn't help much.

What do you think are the risks of genome sequencing in medicine?

Creating unnecessary anxiety especially for brain conditions, that's just too scary. For example somebody could get their genome sequenced at 15 and be told they are at risk of a disease when they are 60, but by the time they get to 60 we may have cured or found a treatment for the disease and all their worrying would have been unnecessary.

I get worried very easily so I just don't want to know facts that will make me worried. Particularly early in my life I was aware that on both my mother and father's sides there was a lot of cancer, so I just assumed I was prone to it. So I've stayed out of the sun and all of those things.

Where do you think the next big progess in biology will be made?

I want to say mental disease but I think that's unlikely. Hopefully metabolic diseases: for example, no one really knows what a healthy diet is. No matter how well educated you are or how much money you have you still don't know, and that should change.

Finally, what are your favourite parts of Cambridge?

Looking at King's and Clare, the backs, there are many aspects.It was very kind to me, made me feel at home and wanted, even before we found the structure.

Toby McMaster – News Reporter