James Wyngaarden on Jim Waston: Departure from the HGP at NIH
  James Wyngaarden     Biography    
Recorded: 18 Aug 2003

Well, I think he had some personal difficulties with Dr. Healy, my successor that arose before he became director. And I was not party to those. And I’ve heard some stories about that, but I don’t want to talk about things that I don’t’ have firsthand knowledge of.

While director there were some major policy differences. Dr Healy was strongly in favor of patenting gene sequences. Jim was strongly opposed to that thinking that they should be in the public domain. And that escalated. And also Jim was less interested in doing cDNA sequencing feeling that that was not as scientifically as rigorous as he would like to see it. Where as Craig Venter who was at the NIH and then had left the NIH, was very much in favor of patenting those. And Dr Healy was strongly in favor of patenting those things that the NIH had perhaps a legal right to patent. And that was at a time when the Patent Office was still feeling its’ way. The patents laws require that several conditions be met for any claimed discovery to be eligible for patenting. One of those is utility, there are others about non-obviousness and no_____, but the key difference here is utility.

And in those early days, the NIH and others claimed eligibility on utility that was theoretical. That any one of these sequences could theoretically be used for a probe. And that this probe might have commercial value. And for a while the patent office went along with that, but as the opposition rose they have stiffened that requirement so that utility now really has to be a utility in terms of a specific process to make a useful product, not just theoretical, but actual.

So in a way it’s become a non-issue with time. But in that moment she and Jim locked horns daily, shouting matches in the, I’m told, I never was there, but I’m told in the building. And as time went on they spoke to each other less and less. And Jim made, I guess, as he is want to do critical comments publicly. So it wasn’t long and they were sort of communicating through press releases and through interviews, you know, not to each other but by way of reporters. And this was all picked up. It was good press, lively reading.

And then something happened about which I don’t know a great deal. But an entrepreneur wanted to create a company and he wanted to recruit to that company some British scientists. And for some reason he blamed Jim for the fact that they had changed their mind. One of the he thought had accepted, and then decided to stay in London. I think Jim had encouraged the Wellcome Trust when they were thinking about setting up a sequencing process that they were to go ahead with it. And that made it attractive for these men to stay in London. I don’t that Jim did more than that, maybe he did.

But at any rate that reached the White House. At that time Dr. Healy started raising questions about Jim’s financial holdings, the family stock portfolio and so on. All things that the was perfectly candid about when he came to the NIH. We had ___by our legal staff. They were reviewed with this conflict of interest statement which all of us filled out annually. His was reviewed annually. No questions were ever raised for the first three years or so. And suddenly all this became an issue. And I think by that time, first of all, the project was now well launched. And Jim had done a fantastic job of organizing it and bringing the Department of Energy into this. This was a united front on sequencing. DOE did certain things one way. NIH did some things in other ways, but they were working hand in glove. We resisted any effort of the Congress to name one or the other the agencies the lead agency which they love to do. They love to interfere. They all get their hands in it. We said this wasn’t necessary. And they finally ceased and desisted on that. But Jim was the de facto leader of the project for the entire government, for the entire world basically.

And it got off to a very good start. There were those who thought that NIH should have set up the centers and the DOE set up some large centers. So we had a combination of smaller grants and larger grants, all of it rigorously peer-reviewed which was important. And Norton Zinder chaired the advisory committee once this became a center with its mini institute characteristics. So we had a dozen or fifteen absolutely top flight people on the advisory committee. It was done in a very classy way. And Jim gave that the kind of leadership at the start that it needed. But when it became nasty he got to a point and he said, this isn’t worth it and resigned. But by that time it had its own momentum. It had attracted a very able successor in Francis Collins. And the project has gone well.

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.