James Watson, whose 1953 discovery of the structure of DNA with Francis Crick launched the revolution in molecular biology, says recent heart surgery has wreaked havoc on his long-term memory (though not his tennis serve: the 88-year-old can still reach 100 miles per hour). At a celebration of his friend Arthur Pardee’s 95th birthday last weekend at the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in Cambridge, Mass., however, Watson showed no signs of cognitive slowdown, much less of forgetting the world-changing events of 63 years ago.
His acerbic and impolitic wit was also in fine form. Describing one scientist who gave a talk at the meeting, Watson said, he is “so brilliant, he reminds me of Francis,” including being so much smarter than everyone else that “no one wants to work with him.” The public’s embrace of antioxidants may well be fatally misguided, he said, rattling off biochemical data on how reducing antioxidants in cancer cells may be the key to destroying them — while consuming high levels of antioxidants as pills or even in foods may increase the risk of dying of cancer, as he argued in a 2013 paper.
Watson spoke to STAT at the Academy and by phone. Here are excerpts from those conversations and from his remarks at the birthday bash:
On the cancer moonshot announced this year by President Obama:
The depressing thing about the “cancer moonshot” is that it’s the same old people getting together, forming committees, and the same old ideas, and it’s all crap . . .
On the prospects of curing cancer:
Everyone wants to sequence DNA [to treat cancer], but I don’t think that will help you cure late-stage cancer, because the mutations in metastatic cancer are not the same as those that started the cancer. I was pessimistic about curing cancer when gene-targeted drugs began to fail, but now I’m optimistic.
On what he sees as the best hope for treating and even curing advanced (metastatic) cancer: an experimental drug from Boston Biomedical (for which Watson is a paid consultant):
Papers have identified the gene STAT3, a transcription factor [that turns on other genes], as expressed in most kinds of cancer. It causes cancer cells to become filled with antioxidants [which neutralize many common chemotherapies]. In the presence of the experimental drug that targets STAT3, cancers become sensitive to chemotherapies like paclitaxel and docetaxel again. This is the most important advance in the last 40 years. It really looks like late-stage cancer will be partly stopped by a drug.
On his involvement in current cancer research:
I’m not at war with the cancer community, but they ignore me and I ignore them.
On his own anticancer regimen:
I take metformin [a widely used diabetes drug] and aspirin; I try not to eat too much sugar, and I exercise. Put all together, they probably reduce my cancer risk 50 percent. At 88, I give myself five years to see 80 percent of cancers treatable. What we can now say is that lots of untreatable cancers have become treatable. When does “treatable” mean “curable”? I’m not sure, but living five years with pancreatic cancer would be quite something. I don’t want to die until I see that most cancers have become curable.