The Nobel Prize-winning scientist who helped discover the molecular structure of DNA made another breakthrough Thursday, this time as the subject of research. James Watson, 79, became the first person to receive his own personal genome map, a breakdown of his DNA that could show illnesses he's predisposed to contracting.
"I knew I was risking possible anxiety when I saw it," said Watson, who was presented the map during a ceremony at Baylor College of Medicine. "But it's much more that if I don't sleep at night it's due to thinking about Iraq rather than about my genome."
Researchers say the mapping of Watson's DNA is the first step in making the sequencing of individual human genomes quick, affordable and a routine part of personal medical care.
The $1 million, two-month project was a collaboration between 454 Life Sciences Corp., a Connecticut company that specializes in DNA sequencing, and Baylor College of Medicine's Human Genome Sequencing Center.
A review of Watson's genome showed he has some variances that are cancer-inducing. Watson said he's had skin cancer and that his sister had breast cancer.
Watson said one piece of information from his genome he didn't want to know about was whether he was at risk for Alzheimer's disease, which his grandmother died from.
Jonathan Rothberg, founder and former chairman of 454 Life Sciences, said the price of mapping someone's genome sequence could eventually drop to $1,000, making it easy for people to incorporate it into their medical care.
That potential price tag is in sharp contrast to the cost of the Human Genome Project, the international, publicly financed effort to first identify all the approximately 20,000-25,000 genes in human DNA. That project, seen as one of history's great scientific milestones, cost $3 billion and was completed in 2003, after 13 years.
Watson, who shared a Nobel Prize for his role in discovering the structure of DNA in 1953 and who launched the Human Genome Project in 1990, said thousands more individual human genomes need to be mapped out before researchers can make better sense of the information they can provide.
Amy McGuire, an assistant professor of medicine with Baylor's Center for Medical Ethics and Health Policy, said integrating human genomes into medical diagnosis raises various ethical questions, including how it could reveal personal information about a patient's relatives and whether someone's genetic code could result in discrimination by an insurance company or an employer.
"I think we'll have a healthier and more compassionate world 50 years from now because of the technological advances we are celebrating today," Watson said.