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Salk hosts James Watson to celebrate 60th anniversary of DNA discovery

James Watson

James Watson spoke to a standing-room-only crowd in the Frederic de Hoffmann Auditorium.

On the eve of the 60th anniversary of the discovery of DNA, James Watson addressed Salk faculty, staff and guests on his new approach to cancer research.

"James Watson is the most famous scientist in the world," said Ronald Evans, holder of Salk's March of Dimes Chair in Molecular and Developmental Biology, as he introduced Watson. Evans disclosed that he'd just asked Watson to autograph his own copy of The Double Helix, Watson's best-selling memoir of the quest to understand DNA.

In 1962, Watson shared the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine with long-time Salk Institute faculty member Francis Crick and Maurice Wilkins of King's College, London, for describing the double-helix structure of DNA, a discovery that laid the cornerstone for modern molecular biology. The fourth scientist who contributed to the discovery, Rosalind Franklin, had died of uterine cancer before the prize was awarded.

Watson, Chancellor Emeritus of the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, has described his research on cancer as "among my most important work since the double helix." He presented a provocative series of questions based on his review of the literature on cancer, especially studies on metformin, known as a diabetes drug, which he has been taking to keep his prostate cancer in check.

At one point, the lecture nearly turned into a private discussion between Watson and Reuben Shaw, an associate professor in Salk's Molecular and Cell Biology Laboratory and researcher in the Institute's new Helmsley Center for Genomic Medicine. Shaw had a paper in the journal Cancer Cell, which showed that a derivative of metformin decreased the size of lung tumors in mice and increased the animals' survival. "Unfortunately, for Cold Spring Harbor, you didn't accept our job offer!" Watson joked.

In his closing remarks, Evans, who has helped to spearhead Salk's efforts on metabolic diseases and aging research, cautioned, "Most Americans are under-exercised." By contrast, the 85-year-old Watson is a testimony to healthy aging. "I've exercised strenuously for the past twenty years," he said. "If I hadn't, I probably wouldn't be giving this talk."