The Intersection of the Double Helix and Life Sciences in Seattle
Sixty years ago this spring, three landmark papers were published in Nature on the 3-D structure of deoxyribonucleic acid – DNA, the molecule that allows life to exist, replicate and evolve. The most celebrated of these papers was authored by James Watson and Francis Crick, working in the U.K. at the Cavendish Laboratory, Cambridge University. They proposed an elegantly concise structure of the DNA double helix which implied the basis for storage and replication of genetic information. A quarter of a century later, this seminal discovery led to recombinant DNA technology and spawned the biotechnology industry in centers across the globe, including Seattle.
As with most great scientific discoveries, the proposed double helix structure was based on the work of others, in particular the principal authors of two other papers on the structure of DNA published in the same issue of Nature. These papers, one authored by Maurice Wilkins, the other by Rosalind Franklin, both of Kings College in London, described X-ray crystallography photographs of sufficient quality to support major aspects of the Watson and Crick model. Watson, Crick and Maurice Wilkins shared the 1962 Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine. Ironically, Rosalind Franklin, who produced a high quality crystal structure depicting the “B” hydration form of DNA in the famous “Photograph 51.” She was not eligible to be included for the prize having died of ovarian cancer four years before the Nobel Prize was awarded. As described in his 1968 book The Double Helix, Watson’s initial access to Franklin’s crystallography work, in particular the image dubbed “Photograph 51” was instrumental in providing specific measurements of the molecular structure and predicting the double helical structure. However, these critical data were apparently shared with Watson and Crick without Franklin’s knowledge. Moreover, Watson’s description of Franklin herself was anything but flattering, showing little respect and questioning her scientific knowledge, technical abilities and even her style of dress.
Franklin’s side of the story eventually became more broadly known, particularly through the success of Anna Ziegler’s play “Photograph 51”, which won the 2008 STAGE International Script Award for the best new play about science and technology. As this spring marks the 60th anniversary of discovery of the DNA double helix, the Seattle Repertory Theatre is planning to revisit the story through a production of Photograph 51. Ziegler uses the real life characters and historic backdrop from sixty years ago to tell the story from Franklin’s viewpoint. As with many of the great discoveries of science, the play depicts fierce competition and self-serving behavior along with elements of collaboration and professionalism. In addition to recounting one of the most important scientific discoveries of the 20th Century, the play explores the role of women in science, intrapersonal relationships and ideas of “work-life balance”. The play’s intelligent, witty dialogue, sophisticated depiction of the underlying science as well as intimate interplay between ideas, evidence and personalities should be entertaining and provocative, particularly for those of us in life sciences and medicine.
The work of Watson, Crick, Wilkins and Franklin propelled the molecular biology revolution of the past 60 years, which spread all over the world, and especially took root in science hubs like Seattle. Our region has built on that foundation to become one of the centers for the biotechnology industry. Scientists from the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center and the University of Washington led the way in this new business that seeks to develop products based on this deeper understanding of biology. The first wave of companies, founded in the early 1980s, included Genetic Systems (acquired by Bristol-Myers Squibb), Immunex (acquired by Amgen) and ZymoGenetics (acquired by Bristol-Myers Squibb). The area also has a rich legacy in the medical device industry, including the application of ultrasound technology for medical uses that emerged from work at the UW and other Pacific Northwest institutions. Many of the original companies that put the Seattle area on the “life sciences/biotechnology map” have been acquired by larger, more successful companies based outside our area.
With its deep roots in the life sciences, Seattle now finds itself in a rebuilding mode—as many of the larger, more successful companies have been acquired by even larger, more successful companies located outside our area. Talented and experienced employees have been displaced—many have stayed in the area at smaller startup companies, while some have left. In the spirit of understanding our biotech community’s roots and looking towards the future, we (BioPharma Consulting Services, C3 Research Associates, Dave & Shirley Urdal, Dendreon, Pacific Northwest Statistical Consulting and Steve & Anne Gillis) are hosting “An Evening at the Intersection of Life Sciences and Live Theater” on Tuesday February 12th at the Seattle Repertory Theatre. This special event will include a networking reception with food, good wine, door prizes and a private performance of Photograph 51. The evening will be a great opportunity for members of the Seattle life sciences community to come together to celebrate the past and discuss the future. If you’d like to join us for this special event on Feb. 12, follow this link.
Who knows, there may be some inspiring lessons there for those of us who hope to see more great discoveries in our biotech community.
Otherwise, we hope you can see the Photograph 51 story at the Rep anytime during its run from Feb. 1 to March 3.
[Editor's Note: This post was co-authored by Gary Jones, a Seattle-based biotech consultant.]