“Helen Hunt is a very fine actress, and she’s beautiful,” says Seattle geneticist Dr. Mary-Claire King. Assessing actors isn’t a habit for the scientist, whose most famous discovery is the existence of a gene for inherited susceptibility to breast cancer, but in this case she has reason to—King is played by Hunt in a forthcoming film chronicling her discovery of the breast cancer gene. Of the movie, King says, “It will be my words, with perfect hair.”
Not that King needs perfect hair to get noticed. She is a celebrity in her own right, a multi-laureled American Cancer Society professor of genetics and medicine who runs her own lab, the King Lab, at the University of Washington. She only learned about the movie, Decoding Annie Parker (which is in postproduction), when some of the students in her lab stumbled across the information online. It took awhile to convince her it wasn’t a practical joke.
Settled in at her desk, behind a towering Starbucks latte, 66-year-old King speaks quickly and eloquently, punctuating her sentences with hand gestures. She’s expressive, good-humored and sometimes, usually when talking about someone else’s accomplishment, exuberant.
King’s work has been groundbreaking from the get-go. For her doctoral dissertation at the University of California, Berkeley, in the early 1970s, she dropped the news that the genes of chimpanzees and humans are 99 percent identical.
Through King’s work, genetic testing can now identify the 10 percent of women who are at an extremely high risk of inherited breast/ovarian cancer.
Her search for and discovery of the first inherited breast cancer gene, known as BRCA1, took nearly 16 years, starting in 1974, when genetics was young and techniques were primitive. At the time, few people believed breast cancer could be inherited. Dr. King thought otherwise. “I had this very naive view, that worked, that if there was a gene responsible, I could find it by looking in the DNA of women in these severely affected families,” she says. She amassed the evidence, one family at a time.
While working as a postdoctoral researcher at UC-San Francisco, before the advent of the World Wide Web, King located potential study families by word of mouth, with help from physicians and others who heard about her work. Rows of identical white plastic folders in her office hold the data from blood tests of more than 2,500 families. The footwork paid off with what has been described as one of the most important discoveries of the 20th century.
Through King’s work, genetic testing can now identify the 10 percent of women who are at an extremely high risk of inherited breast/ovarian cancer, such as Annie Parker (played by Samantha Morton in the film), who saw her mother and sister succumb to breast cancer before being diagnosed and beginning her own extraordinary battle against the disease. Today, women with a genetic risk are able to choose surgery to remove their ovaries, or to have prophylactic mastectomies, to greatly reduce their risk of developing ovarian cancer and breast cancer.
King became a Berkeley professor, and in 1995, she was wooed north to the University of Washington to join a new department of genomic sciences, with initial funding from the Gates family. “I saw a unique opportunity to join a group doing just what I wanted to do,” she says. King’s lab continues to study inherited breast/ovarian cancer to learn more about the disease and find ways to prevent it. Or as King puts it, “To try to make discoveries and develop approaches based on those discoveries that can actually be used in the real world, right away, by all of us.”