Acclaimed scientist Watson discusses cancer research

James Watson, the American scientist who helped discover the structure of DNA in the early 1950s, visited campus on Tuesday to deliver a talk at the medical school.
James Watson, the American scientist who helped discover the structure of DNA in the early 1950s, visited campus on Tuesday to deliver a talk at the medical school. Photo by Joyce Xi.

James Watson, who discovered the structure of DNA alongside Francis Crick, spoke Tuesday about his ongoing research in oncology.

In his talk, “Driven by Ideas,” Watson discussed new ideas about the causes of and treatments for cancer in front of a packed Harkness Auditorium at the Yale School of Medicine. He also walked his audience through the technicalities behind cancer treatment and research, and expressed his views about the nature of scientific research in general.

Watson is best known for the paper he published with Crick in 1953 that sparked a scientific revolution in biology. The discovery of the DNA double helix had “transformative ramifications for fields such as biology and forensics,” said Yale biochemistry professor Joan Steitz, a former student of Watson’s at Harvard, who introduced the talk.

Watson said he developed an interest in cancer research because his father’s younger brother died from malignant melanoma.

“I have always had the desire to first understand cancer, and then cure it,” Watson said.

When he first began teaching at Harvard in the 1950s, Watson said little was known about the origins or causes of cancer. Today, he said, studies of the disease have refocused on how genetics affect cancer.

Throughout his talk, Watson emphasized the need to embrace experimentation and risk in science, stressing that he does not shy away from a small amount of uncertainty in his work.

“When you teach and something is 90 percent right, treat it as 100 percent right,” he said. “People don’t want to publish anything wrong. I don’t think it matters if it’s wrong. Something that might be wrong nevertheless generates motivation to do experiments, and just might be right.”

Watson noted that he and others have developed new ideas about the causes of and treatments for cancer, adding that scientists have discovered that Metformin, a drug used to treat Type 2 diabetes, may also be able to protect against cancer.

In order to finance and facilitate breakthroughs in cancer research, Watson argued that research should be conducted in “semi-industrialized labs.”

“Why not act like a war against cancer is on?” Watson posed. “I’m having a lot of fun trying to solve cancer through thinking, but cancer is too important not to be handled intelligently.”

Undergraduates, Yale School of Medicine students, faculty and New Haven residents alike praised Watson for his thought-provoking discussion.

Daniel Ullman ’15 said he was inspired to be in the presence of someone who laid the foundation for much of modern science.

Amber Bonds, a forensic science student at the University of New Haven, called Watson “enlightening.”

“His perspective is at once so different, so revolutionary and yet so necessary to the field today,” Bonds said.

Vinny Craveiro, who conducts cancer research a lab at the School of Medicine, said Watson’s speech was closely related to his current work, adding that he hopes to incorporate some of the talk’s information into his research.

Watson currently serves as Oliver Grace professor of cancer research at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in Cold Spring Harbor, N.Y.

Correction: 21 March 2012

An earlier version of the caption on the photo accompanying this article misstated James Watson’s nationality.

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