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The Symposia, 1933 — 2003

1974:   Tumor Viruses, Vol. XXXIX

Organizer: James Watson

Table of Contents

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In 1974, Jim Watson was still dividing his time between his jobs as a professor at Harvard and director of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, but he had already impressed his stamp on the Laboratory. He had become interested in cancer in the mid-1960s, even including a chapter on cancer in the first edition of Molecular Biology of the Gene (1965). As a genetic approach to human cancer was impossible–the genetic tools were inadequate at that time–Watson devoted the chapter to what might be learned from tumor viruses such as polyoma and Rous sarcoma viruses. It is not surprising, then, that the first major project Watson instituted at Cold Spring Harbor was on tumor viruses, with Joe Sambrook as the lead scientist. And it is not surprising that Tumor Viruses was among the early topics that Watson chose for a Symposium.

In his introductory remarks, Renato Dulbecco, who had made significant contributions to virology through developing cell culture systems, surveyed the progress in oncogenic virus research over the past twelve years, since the last Cold Spring Harbor Symposium on viruses, Basic Mechanisms in Animal Virus Biology. Dulbecco found that “...the field has had such a vast development that we must now concentrate on what in 1962 was a small area of virology”.

The Symposium is interesting as a record of what was known and thought prior to two great discoveries, both of which, curiously, came in 1976. Dulbecco discussed viral oncogenes and recognized that they may cause cancer by two mechanisms–by affecting a cellular gene through integration in the host cell chromosome or by a viral gene directly causing transformation. The former mechanisms was not demonstrated until 1981, but evidence for the latter had been found recently using temperature sensitive mutants. Dulbecco then speculated as to the origin of these viral oncogenes but does not consider that they could be derived from cellular genes, as shown by Stehlin, Bishop and Varmus.

Later in the meeting, the various Cold Spring Harbor adenovirus groups presented their studies on adenovirus genome structure and transcription. Most notably,

Lewis et al. report that the mRNAs for some adenovirus proteins are much larger than is needed for the proteins they code for, and Westphal reported similar findings. These were amongst the first anomalies that indicated RNA splicing, discovered in 1976 by the groups at MIT and Cold Spring Harbor.

There was another paper worthy of particular note. Grodzicker et al. made the first use of restriction endonuclease mapping and linkage analysis to correlate the physical and genetic maps, in this case of adenovirus. They remarked that it was a method “...capable of wide application” but they did not forsee the part restriction mapping would come to play in analyzing human genetic disorders.

The Symposium contributed strongly to the Symposium Nobel Laureate Index. While there was only one current laureate was present–Watson–several future ones participated: Baltimore, Dulbecco and Temin (1975); Nathans (1978); Varmus (1989); and Roberts and Sharp (1993).

Dulbecco concluded his opening remarks: “We must remember what viral oncology was twelve years ago, and how it has changed, and look at the next twelve years with the same spirit and hope.” His optimism was well rewarded; within five years there were sufficient remarkable findings for the 1979 Symposium to be devoted to Viral Oncogenes.

Peter Sherwood

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