In March 2012, Nobel Prize winner James Watson gave a seminar at Yale University entitled “Driven by Ideas”.
Seemly out of character for the man who co-discovered DNA, Watson repeatedly suggested researchers shift focus to the metabolism of cancer.
Watson presented a variety of metaphors to describe how scientists should view studying cancer. For example, he claimed that researchers should treat the cancer cell as a “sick man” and not “Superman,” as cancer cells exhibit constitutively active cell growth and glycolytic metabolism, known as the Warburg effect, which makes cancer cells inherently metabolically vulnerable to cell-killing agents. Thus, Watson claimed that a cancer cell should be “killed the right way” by attacking what he called the “Achilles heel” of that cell.
It is ironic that this seminal shift in thought is coming from Watson himself. The Watson and Crick discovery of DNA in 1953 was such a profound intellectual achievement that it quickly came to dominate the landscape of biology for the rest of the century and into the next; soon eclipsing the metabolic theory of cancer proposed by Otto Warburg in 1924.
Unfortunately, when the origin of cancer shifted from metabolic to genetic, a new era of futility began. As we have pointed out before; of the 700 drugs developed that target the genetic mutations thought to drive cancer, only one has had real impact. Chasing mutations that are not the cause, or the driver of the disease has truly been an exercise of futility. Yet the majority of funding continues to go to cancer genetics. The cancer research community needs to remember how Albert Einstein defined insanity: “Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”
Encouragingly, and full-circle, after a lifetime of disappointment and lack of progress, James Watson himself is now giving validity to the metabolism of cancer.
Read a report of the James Watson lecture at Yale University here.