Recorded: 08 Sep 2003
So fortunately, so I left the Department of Energy in 1987. And one of the things that I did there by the way which I felt best about was I put in place a policy to set aside three or four percent of the budget for ethical studies. I was very concerned about the ramifications of genetics on society, on individuals, on groups, on individuals and on nations. And I thought that was very important. So we put that in place. I went to speak to people at Georgetown to get some advice on how to do this. And we put that in place. That was done.
I left. Jim Wyngaarden became then fortunately NIH was able to get—not Jim Wyngaarden, Jim Watson to head the genome project there. And Watson did the same thing. It was one of the things that he was very, very astute. He put in place again there what’s called ELSI now. And an interesting story.
So Watson and my successor at DOE, the person who was acting director after I left were testifying before Congress once. And Jim was explaining to them that he had this ethical study in place, and he had this program for the study of ethics in place. And the person who replaced me at DOE decided that this wasn’t a good thing for DOE to do. That they shouldn’t be spending their money studying ethics.
Mila Pollock: What is his name?
Charles DeLisi: It was Bob Wood.
Mila Pollock: Bob Wood.
Charles DeLisi: They shouldn’t be spending their money that way. They put their money into studying, doing just the science. And Congressman aides explained that to the Congressmen. And the congressmen looked at him and said, you go back to your office and you’re not going to get a cent unless you restore that program.
So DOE then got into it again after the fact. But it did happen and I think that is one of the most important, it’s the first time at which people began to asses the technology as it was being developed, not after. Not like the Manhattan Project, for example, where everybody started worrying about it after it had happened. Here everybody is worrying about it now because, in fact, this is all still unfolding. And the impact hasn’t even begun to be felt. Right now the immediate impact—the immediate problem right now is one of protecting privacy, is one of access. Essentially access is the issue and privacy is related to that. People should be free to go get genetic tests without having to worry about the possibility that the whole world is going to have to know about it or anyone who wants to know about it.
Charles DeLisi did pioneering work in theoretical and mathematical immunology. He received his Ph.D. in physics and did postdoctoral studies in the chemistry department at Yale University researching RNA structure. He became a theoretical physicist at Los Alamos National Laboratory and then moved to the National Institute of Health, where he worked on molecular and cell immunology for ten years.
DeLisi is currently director of the Biomolecular Systems Laboratory, Chair of the Bioinformatics Program, Metcalf Professor of Science and Engineering and Dean Emeritus of the College of Engineering at Boston University.
Charles DeLisi develops computational methods for high throughput genomic and proteomic analysis. His laboratory is helping to develop technologies for fingerprinting the complete molecular state of a cell. He is interested in finding computational methods for determining protein function and researches the structural basis of signal translation by membrane bound receptors, the structural basis of voltage gating, and the docking of peptide hormones and neurotransmitters at their sites of action.
In 1986, DeLisi and Watson met at a CSHL meeting and spoke about their interests in sequencing the human genome.