HOUSTON – The Nobel Prize-winning scientist who helped discover the molecular structure of DNA has become the first person to receive his own personal genome map.
The map, a breakdown of his DNA that shows illnesses he is predisposed to contracting, is the first step in making the sequencing of individual human genomes quick, affordable and a routine part of medical care, according to researchers.
"I knew I was risking possible anxiety when I saw it," said 79-year-old James 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."
Watson was chosen for the project because of his contributions to the field, and the map was completed after he submitted a blood sample.
A review showed he has some variances that could induce cancer — which appeared to mirror his actual health. Watson said that he has had skin cancer and that his sister had breast cancer.
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.
At the moment, there are no plans to complete more maps in the immediate future, though researchers want to eventually map more people.
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 diagnoses raises various ethical questions.
Those include what to do when they reveal personal information about a patient's relatives and whether someone's genetic code could result in discrimination from insurance companies or employers.
"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.
While Watson said that he would review the map further, there was at least one part he would avoid.
He planned to skip the section of the map that would tell him if he was at risk for Alzheimer's disease, which his grandmother died from.
That, he said, he didn't want to know.