Francis Collins: Well, as an assistant professor back then, at the University of Michigan, trying to apply what we would now consider pretty rudimentary tools, but they were very high-tech at the time, to discover causes of human diseases, a big part of my passion was to find the cause of cystic fibrosis. I had met that disease as a doctor, but as a researcher, I wanted to understand it because, as a doctor, there wasn’t much to say other than, “People get this terrible problem in their lungs and their digestive system, and they die young, and we don’t know why, other than it seems to be genetic.”
So we chased after that cause. I spent five years with a lab that was incredibly flat-out devoted to this, and yet we went down so many blind alleys. We had so many frustrating experiences where our technology just wasn’t up to the task. There was no genome project, so most of what we needed to know, we had to invent from scratch, and it was tedious, and it was full of errors all the time, and disappointments rained down upon us for five years.
And then the time came where on that fateful, rainy day in May 1989, we knew we had the answer, and it was almost hard to accept because when you’ve been burned a few times, you’re afraid to accept the answer as being correct, because maybe it will be wrong again by tomorrow, but this one was really compelling.