Clinical genetics then and now – Michael Watson
As Head of ACMG, Michael Watson has just about seen it all. Ahead of the ACMG Annual Meeting earlier this year, we caught up with Dr Watson as he reflects how things have changed for the sector, and the challenges yet to come…
When it comes to clinical genomics, Michael Watson is widely considered to be something of a big deal. As a founder and Executive Director of the American College of Medical Genetics and Genomics, he has been a key player in promoting the uptake of genetics into the clinic, and has cemented the unique position of ACMG at the intersection between the science and the practice and genomic medicine. And he’s been involved in more than a few crucial regulatory developments. Ahead of ACMG’s 25th Anniversary Annual Meeting, we asked Michael to share some of his career highlights and his thoughts for the future as we move further into the era of genomic medicine.
FLG: You’re widely regarded as one of the single most important driving forces behind the integration of genetics into medical practice. When did you first feel that medical genetics was something you wanted to devote your career to?
MW: Actually, there seemed to be job security in it back in the 1970s, when I was in graduate school or considering graduate school or medical school. I had a course with a public health geneticist from New Hampshire, and began to see the potential as these technologies were beginning to roll out. And so you know, it seemed like it had transformative capabilities with regard to medical practice, and at that time it actually had that sort of translational interest, things you could do in running clinical laboratories in genetics that were also highly informative from a translational research perspective. And it was at a time when NIH grant funding was considerably more challenging that it became several years after that, so one could actually do a fair bit of clinical research by running a clinical diagnostic laboratory in genetics. Those are some of the things that sort of directed me in this particular job area.
FLG: You went on to build up a great career for yourself at Washington University, and it’s in that time that ACMG was incorporated. Was that an exciting time for you and medical genetics as a field?
MW: Yeah, the field had been starting to get more integrated into organised medicine in the early 1980s. For those us in the field of science, all 500 of us, I think, at that time, it was becoming apparent that it had enough uniqueness that it could be defined as its own specialty. But the nature of the development of new medical specialties, at least in the United States, is at first establishing on a voluntary basis a board certification program and a means of accrediting those programs that were going to train people in the area. So we built the American Board of Medical Genetics in 1982, at least in 1982, the first board certification examinations were offered. And one usually has to have that voluntary system in place for ten years until you can approach organized medicine about how you fit in. So we did that in 1982 with our board and by 1992, we were then beginning discussions with the American Board of Medical Specialties about how genetics would be recognised in the system. It could be a sub-specialty, it could be its own specialty. And at that time, they were recognised by the ABMS as the 24th primary specialty board of medicine in the United States. So it was the first primary board that was recognised since the early 1970s, and I don’t think there has been one since.
You can read the rest of our interview with Michael Watson on page 9 of the ACMG special edition of Front Line Genomics magazine.
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