DNA pioneer James Watson slams cancer research establishment

A day after an exhaustive national report on cancer pointed to the slow progress the US was making against the disease, one of the top scientists in the country has weighed in on "the war against cancer."

James WatsonJames Watson, co-discoverer of the double helix structure of DNA, took aim at targets big and small. On government officials who oversaw cancer research, he wrote in a paper published yesterday 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 US project to determine the DNA changes that led to nine types of cancer, he said it was "not likely to produce the truly breakthrough drugs that we now so desperately need.'' Regarding the role antioxidants such as those in colourful berries played in the fight against cancer: he wrote, "The time has come to seriously ask whether antioxidant use much more likely causes than prevents cancer."

That Watson's impassioned plea followed the publication of the annual cancer report was coincidental. He spent months working on the paper which represented 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 was awarded 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.

According to molecular biologist Mark Ptashne of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York, 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. The next step designing a drug that would block the runaway proliferation the mutation caused.

However, none of the resulting treatments cured cancer. "These new therapies work for just a few months," Watson told Reuters in a rare interview. "And we have nothing for major cancers such as the lung, colon and breast that have become metastatic."