Don’t think of cancer as a “Superman”

John Curtis

James D. Watson, Ph.D., subscribes to a personal health regimen that includes doses of the diabetes drug metformin, tennis games three times a week, and a regular intake of ibuprofen. He is also a fan of vitamin D. All these steps are aimed at helping him ward off cancer.

Speaking to an overflow Harkness Auditorium crowd at a lecture hosted by the Yale Cancer Center and the Molecular Virology Program in April, the 84-year-old Nobel laureate and DNA pioneer said that cancer may be “easy to knock out if you can do it the right way.”

He takes metformin, for example, but not for its ability to control diabetes. “Insulin is a driver of many cancers,” he said. “You’re stopping cancers by lowering insulin.” Metformin also works “by directly killing the cancer cell,” he said. Tennis helps, he said, because there’s “pretty good evidence” that exercise-induced stress protects against prostate cancer. And he’s convinced that such anti-inflammatory drugs as ibuprofen prevent cancer.

Watson cited research to support these personal choices, but admitted that not all have gained wide acceptance. He is still much alone, he said, in his enthusiasm for a paper on metformin’s anticancer properties, “but then the whole field of cancer research never gets excited. It just accumulates more data.”

Watson is accustomed to being lonely in his excitement. The field of genetic research was small when he and Francis Crick, Ph.D., co-discovered DNA’s double-helix structure in 1953. The breakthrough earned them a share of the 1962 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine and revolutionized the study of medicine and forensics, but it received scant notice when their paper on the molecular structure of DNA was first published.

Watson, now Chancellor Emeritus at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory on Long Island, developed a “desire to understand cancer and cure it” when his uncle was diagnosed with malignant melanoma in 1947. The key is learning cancer’s fallibilities at the genetic and molecular level, he said. “Don’t think of a cancer cell as Superman,” Watson said. “It’s a sick man.”

RNA interference can be used to determine “the Achilles’ heel of cancer cells” and target cancer genes, Watson said. Ideally, that process can reduce the incidence of cancer or treat it without harming healthy cells. “We just might be lucky enough where we move to an era where much of cancer can be controlled the way we control bacterial infections—taking a medicine without terrible side effects,” he said.

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  • Cancer
  • DNA