James Wyngaarden on Involvement in the HGP
  James Wyngaarden     Biography    
Recorded: 18 Aug 2003

Well, actually, I was aware that Charles DeLisi had proposed a sequencing effort in the department of energy. But I’d also been present at the Italian Embassy, for example, when Dulbecco gave a talk there about sequencing the human genome and its possible relationship to cancer and so forth. But no one was really breaking down the doors at NIH to get involved in this. In fact, as I talked about the project there, most of the institute directors were strongly opposed to an organized genome project.

First of all, it was not the kind of science that NIH classically did. NIH was a champion of small science and single or small groups of investigators. Everything was critically peer reviewed before being awarded. They had no experience with massive projects organized from the top down. And as we talked about this internally, the institute directors were opposed for the reasons that I’ve just given. Plus the fact that they anticipated that this was going to be very expensive and would come at the expense of their own budgets, that the funds would be diverted to something that they had no control over. Each one of them was doing some sequencing of genes of interest in that institute. Cancer was, arthritis, metabolic diseases were and so on. So they were not too anxious to give up what they were doing and they felt really threatened by the idea. That would have been probably ’85, ’86, somewhere there, I’m not too swift on just what dates.

Then when I was in England for a meeting of the European Medical Research Council, NIH is not a member of that, but the NIH director is always invited as a guest. And somebody asked me what I thought of this proposal of DeLisi to sequence the human genome project, and the fact that he had three billion dollars to do it. That was stunning. It turned out not to be quite accurate. But when I got back to Bethesda we looked into that. And he had made this proposal. And I thought, if it’s going to be done we’ve got to be involved in it.

James B. Wyngaarden is a medical doctor, biochemist and medical science advisor. He served as director of the National Institutes of Health, associate director for Life Sciences in the Office of Science and Technology Policy, Executive Office of the President, and as director of the Human Genome Organization. Wyngaarden is currently part of the Washington Advisory Group, LLC and director of four biotechnology/pharmaceutical companies. Wyngaarden is also co-author of the textbook The Metabolic Basis of Inherited Disease.

He researches the regulation of purine biosynthesis, the production of uric acid and he helped initiate the use of allopurinol, a drug developed as an anticancer agent and now used as a treatment for gout. While serving as director of the National Institutes of Heath, he enlisted the help of Dr. Watson in 1988 to begin the Human Genome Project. Jim obliged and joined the NIH as the associate director for Human Genome Research, while still acting as director of the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory.