Recorded: 02 Jun 2003
I started off fundamentally as a pediatrician. I still am a pediatrician. I always just wanted to be a doctor and I got sucked into research early on in college. And so when I was in the process of finishing medical school I realized that we didn’t actually understand how anything worked. And so it was pretty scary when you take care of people and that you realize that you don’t know how it works. So how can you keep them alive? And so I realized very shortly that you don’t have to understand everything. Everybody doesn’t die. All you have to know is a little bit push in the right direction and you can keep them alive. And so my basic training was in genetics and so I realized that’s all genetics does. It really—that knowing the DNA which is fundamental to biology and knowing what the end results are we don’t actually have to understand how things work in the middle to be able to impact people’s lives. So it was at that time in the early 1980s, that my dream from the point of view of medicine would be to have the entire sequence of the human genome so that we could basically know the DNA, know the end results and be able to impact medicine in a more practical way without necessarily understanding how the biology worked. But I thought it was crazy and everybody else thought it was crazy too. So the genome project then that assumed—I realized that it was possible and even though it seemed unlikely I got on board right away. So this was from the very beginning of the genome project and that the—and so to have the sequence of the DNA has actually fulfilled a long term necessary but not sufficient dream of mine. Now that we have it though I want to be alive to be able to use it in this correlative way.
Well, so that the first time I was thinking about this was in the medicine context was 1975, a long time ago. And the times of really starting to think about mapping human genes was in 1981. It was in a meeting that used to be the gene mapping meetings. It was very non-molecular meetings. These were human geneticists. And in 1981 in Oslo was the first one of these international meetings that I went to. I remember at that time very well it was my first meeting. It was a very open community of scientists. And that even though it was my first meeting I was assigned to co-chair to coordinate and it was with Malcolm Ferguson Smith a famous British human geneticist. He and I were in charge of all the genes on a certain set of chromosomes. Each chairperson and co-chair person had a different set of chromosomes. To give you an idea of how few genes there were at that time; Malcolm and I were in charge of chromosomes 13 through 22. So in that meeting we stood up and gave a report about the map positions of all the genes on all those chromosomes. As those meetings went forward I believe it was in 1985 that the first computers were used. What we used to do was cut out, okay, the genes and paste them on pieces of paper about what their order were on the chromosome. And that by, I think, 1985 we can check this but this was a meeting in Helsinki that Albert Delachapelle ran that was the very first time computers were used at all by this group to figure out and put in order of what the genes were. It was also at that meeting I believe where the first designations of DNA sequences were, unique DNA sequences on a map. So that this set of meetings, this human gene mapping meetings were a very different set of people from the molecular biologists. They were like parallel paths of individuals and that so I think one of the key people who was leading the molecular biologists was Charles Cantor. He was making physical maps of the DNA with pulse-field gel electrophoresis. So he organized a very different set of meetings that didn’t include any of these people that had previously been mapping the genes and that this was a set of molecular biologists. And none of the gene mappers went to those meetings. So for a time and this was in the late 1980s it was that it was a real sort of parallel group of people that weren’t working very well together. The people that were mapping genes were thought of as idiots. That they didn’t actually know anything about modern technology. And that the people that have mapped the genes thought that the people that were doing DNA were idiots because they didn’t know anything about phenotypes and anything about human biology. And the really important thing about the Cold Spring Harbor mapping and sequencing meetings it took nearly fifteen years but that it brought those two groups of people together and in a way that they both respected each other. And now today at this meeting of the celebration there are a number of people that went to some of those very early human gene mapping meetings, not very many of them, who still today are involved in this and they helped to bring both aspects together.
David Cox received B.A. and M.S. degrees from Brown University and M.D. and Ph.D. degrees from the University of Washington. From 1980 to 1993, Dr. Cox held faculty positions in the Departments of Pediatrics, Biochemistry and Psychiatry at the University of California San Francisco. In 1993, he became Professor of Genetics and Pediatrics at the Stanford University School of Medicine as well as the Co-director of the Stanford Genome Center.
Dr Cox was a co-founder of Perlegen, and has been Chief Scientific Officer of the Company since its formation in 2001. He has served on several international and national councils and commissions including the Council of the Human Genome Organization (HUGO) and the National Bioethics Advisory Commission (NBAC). He presently serves as a member of the Health Sciences Policy Board of the Institute of Medicine. Dr Cox's honors include election to the Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences.
Cox was a member of one of the first groups to begin sequencing the human genome. His relationship with Watson developed from his interest in Cox’s innovative approach to sequencing, called radiation hybrid mapping.
He attended the 68th Cold Spring Harbor symposium to celebrate the completion of the rough draft of the human sequence.