Francis Collins: So my lab at Michigan had worked on this disease for three years and made a little progress, but we were really struggling, and there was another lab in Toronto who had worked on it for five years, and they made some progress, but they were struggling. And we decided to pool our labs together.
Lap-Chee Tsui, who was the director of the Toronto lab, and I met and said, “You know, we don’t…” — it’s an example of what we’re talking about. “It’s not that this is about some grand personal triumph. It’s trying to make the world a better place. We gotta figure out the answer to this. Let’s just put our labs together. Maybe we can go faster.” And we did, and for that flat-out two years we worked intensively with a team in both places, and it was May, and we were both at a meeting, in one of those scientific meetings that one needs to go to. It wasn’t particularly about cystic fibrosis, but our labs were working night and day because we thought we were onto something.
We were staying in the dorms at Yale, because that’s where the meeting was, and my colleague had put a fax machine in his dorm room so that we could see the lab data from that day. Of course there was no e-mail, so it was all about fax. And after a very intense day at the meeting, we went back to his room, and here was all these fax sheets lying on the floor, and we picked them up, and there was a lot of data. And it wasn’t immediately clear what was there, but by the time you got to page seven or eight it was pretty clear that this one had to be right.
I knew then that we had identified the gene, which when misspelled caused this disease, and it was a gene nobody could have predicted, and it was a gene that looked like it might be susceptible to some kind of therapeutic intervention, maybe gene therapy, maybe drug therapy, but we’d been in the dark, and now the light had turned on, and that had to be the most significant step forward that cystic fibrosis research had ever seen, and had to, ultimately, lead to cures for this disease.
And here we are now, 27 years later, and those cures have happened for some of the people with the disease, not yet all of them, but — a long path from gene discovery to treatment, but we’re getting there.