“A scientific discovery, invention or advance that still affects the world today”
This article discusses the impact of Watson and Crick’s model of DNA structure as published in the journal, ‘Nature’ in April 1953. Discussed is the significance for personalised and genomic medicine, as the future of the field and progress in prophylaxis. Reflection upon medical developments, especially in epidemiology, virology and genetic diseases are discussed. However, not only was the scientific world the victim of upheaval, but the socio-political environment in which research takes place was also impacted by the developments in DNA structure. The influence of this discovery is unprecedented and affects every aspect of genomics and the future of the medical profession.
The future of medicine is one based upon personalisation: the revolutionary epoch of medicine, originating in genetics and genomics. The discovery of the structure of DNA is, therefore, one of the most influential biochemical advancements of the twentieth century. Since 1953 when “Molecular Structure of Nucleic Acids: A Structure for Deoxyribose Nucleic Acid” was published in the journal, ‘Nature’, the world has accelerated in their progress in genomics of the eukaryotic histone linear DNA and prokaryotic naked circular DNA, alongside obligate virus nucleic acids (albeit RNA in retroviruses). For example, the genome of SARS-CoV2 was readily unearthed during the global pandemic, with the aim of developing effective vaccines. This is the perfect example of the impact of Watson and Cricks’ work: as a consequence of the genomics being known, the pandemic and future mutations can be tracked, to avoid the devastation that was seen with the Spanish Influenza Pandemic a century earlier, whereby 500 million were infected, with approximately a 10% mortality rate (1).
The future of personalised medicine is unprecedented and the reliance on modern genetics and genomics derived from the discovery of the structure of the ‘molecule of life’ is evident. According to Dr Julian Redhead, “nowhere will healthcare scientists have more of an impact on your future care than in genomic medicine” and “Genomic medicine is on the ascendant” (2). The interest in genetics and personalised medicine has been fuelled further by the introduction of CRISPR-9 technology whereby scientists can edit the ATGC nitrogenous organic base genetic triplet code to eradicate or limit the frequency of life-limiting/threatening genetic disease such as congenital asymptomatic (until mid-life) Huntington’s Syndrome. The core knowledge of the structure of DNA as the antiparallel double helix has resulted in targeted techniques and new therapies such as the implications of immunology treatment for cancer.
The history of the discovery also retains a message of social injustice and inequality. Rosalind Franklin and her student, Raymond Gosling’s “Photograph 51”(3), developed at King’s College, London was “critical evidence in identifying the structure of DNA” (3) in Cambridge’s beloved Cavendish Laboratory. However, Franklin was not nominated alongside Watson and Cricks in 1962 for the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. This is a source of contention among scholars arguing whether there was a gender bias involved or whether it was an honest omission due to Franklin’s death in 1958 and the fact that the Nobel Committee did not generally issue posthumous nominations. Regardless of the answer to this long-debated question, there are still evident gender inequalities in the science subjects. Seventy-seven per cent of the NHS workforce are women, however, women hold just 46 percent of very senior manager roles (4). We must defeat this inequality and welcome women into the STEM subjects, without the employment of positive discrimination against intellectual males with equal capability.
Without knowledge of our own biochemistry, we would not understand how to control the frequency of genetic diseases within a certain population as we have with the Ashkenazi Jews whereby the rate of Tay Sachs, a disease caused by an autosomal recessive genetic mutation in the HEXA gene on chromosome 15 (5) is monitored by geneticists in Israel, becoming the first country to offer free genetic screening for conceiving couples (6). Consequently, the incidence of the disease has reduced by 90% since 1971 (7). Without knowledge of the structure of DNA, the entire field of genetics and genomics would be unrecognisable and we would not have made the significant progress that we have in the past 67 years, such as in organ transplantation whereby the influence of the Major Histocompatibility Complex would remain unknown.
In conclusion, the most significant impact of the ‘Cambridge-London Symbiosis’ is arguably the inspiration of millions of young scientists, which without, we would never have the success of the Human Genome Project, with subsequent “tremendous scientific progress in genomics” (8) or the possibilities that lie wide open for the next generation of curious minds such as DNA as a storage molecule or the possibilities to curb world hunger by editing the genome of crops to become resistant to climate change. Scientific and human advancement relies on the infamous discovery of 1953.
(3)‘Photograph 51’ (left)-X-ray diffraction image of a paracrystalline gel composed of DNA fiber taken by Raymond Gosling a graduate student working under the supervision of Rosalind Franklin in May 1952 at King’s College London
(9) Watson-Crick model of DNA structure (right)- as published in Nature in April 1953
- Wikipedia contributors, “Spanish Flu,” Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spanish_flu (accessed March 22, 2020)
- Professor Julian Redhead, Medical Director at Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust, Emergency Medicine Consultant, “The future is personalised medicine”, Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust, March 13, 2017 https://www.imperial.nhs.uk/about-us/blog/the-future-is-personalised-medicine (accessed March 22, 2020)
- Wikipedia contributors, “Photo 51”, Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Photo_51 (accessed March 22, 2020)
- Rebecca Smith, Director of Engagement, NHS Employers, part of the NHS Confederation, “Women in the NHS”, NHS Employers, part of the NHS Confederation, August 22, 2019 https://www.nhsemployers.org/engagement-and-networks/health-and-care-women-leaders-network/women-in-the-nhs (accessed 22 March 2020)
- US National Library of Medicine, “Tay-Sachs disease”, US National Library of Medicine Genetics Home Reference, reviewed October 2012, published May 12 2020 (accessed May 21, 2020)
- Wikipedia contributors, “Tay-Sachs disease”, WIkipedia, the Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tay%E2%80%93Sachs_disease (accessed March 22, 2020)
- Ira Stoll, “How Jewish Activism has Wiped out Tay Sachs,” The Times of Israel, August 23, 2017 https://www.timesofisrael.com/how-jewish-activism-has-wiped-out-tay-sachs/, (accessed 22 March 2020)
- Georgios D Kitsios, David M Kent, “Personalised medicine: not just in our genes,” The British Medical Journal, April 3 2012, https://www.bmj.com/content/344/bmj.e2161 (accessed March 22, 2020)
- Georgina Ferry, “The structure of DNA,” Nature, a nature research journal, October 9, 2019, https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-019-02554-z (accessed March 22, 2020)
About the author
Francesca Wilson is a Year 13 student in Northern Ireland who studies Biology, Chemistry, Mathematics and Religious Studies at A-Level. She was awarded the Sloane McClay Triple Award for attaining the highest aggregate mark of science and maths at GCSE in NI. She hopes to read Medicine at the University of Cambridge and one day become a cardiothoracic surgeon.