James Watson, co-discoverer of the double helix structure of DNA, wrote in a paper "We now have no general of influence, much less power ... leading our country's War on Cancer."

On the $100 million U.S. project to determine the DNA changes that drive nine forms of cancer: It is "not likely to produce the truly breakthrough drugs that we now so desperately need," he said. And on the idea that antioxidants such as those in colorful berries fight cancer: "The time has come to seriously ask whether antioxidant use much more likely causes than prevents cancer."

What does he mean? 

Watson says researchers should be targeting features that all cancer cells, especially those in metastatic cancers, have in common. Like oxygen radicals. Those forms of oxygen rip apart other components of cells, such as DNA. That is why antioxidants, which have become near-ubiquitous additives in grocery foods from snack bars to soda, are thought to be healthful: they mop up damaging oxygen radicals.

It gets more complicated once cancer is present. Radiation therapy and many chemotherapies kill cancer cells by generating oxygen radicals, which trigger cell suicide. If a cancer patient is eating those berries and other antioxidants, it can actually keep therapies from working, Watson proposed.

"Everyone thought antioxidants were great," he said. "But I'm saying they can prevent us from killing cancer cells."

Most disappointing was one response from "one eminent cancer biologist who asked not to be identified so as not to offend Watson."

If Watson is wrong, he is wrong. No one minds disputing Joseph Mercola or Matt Damon or Michele Bachmann, why is Watson going to get a free pass? 

Citation: Jim Watson (how do you know you're still a science badass? You can write a paper as 'Jim Watson' and everyone knows exactly who you are), 'Oxidants, antioxidants and the current incurability of metastatic cancers', Open Biology Published online January 8, 2013 doi: 10.1098/rsob.120144 (open access)

DNA pioneer James Watson takes aim at "cancer establishments" by Sharon Begley, Reuters