How Historic BRCA Research Nearly Went Off the Rails in the 80s

As a scientist, Mary-Claire King has had a remarkable career related to her study of BRCA genes. She’s received a Lasker Award and has been recognized by President Obama with the National Medal of Science. But if it weren’t for her resilience, a burglary, and Joe DiMaggio, she may not have ever completed her research, according to an article in Business Insider.
King played a fundamental role in our current understanding of BRCA-mutated breast cancer, a mutated gene that causes breast cancer in families. To read more about BRCA-mutated breast cancer, click here.

While she’s now a research hero, things weren’t always easy. In 1981, the week King was getting ready to provide additional testimony to secure a large grant request in Washington, DC, her husband announced he was leaving her. Not only was he leaving Mary-Claire, he was moving to Costa Rico with the graduate assistant. He said goodbye to their five-year-old daughter and started packing.

King had a class to teach the next day. She dropped her daughter at school, and taught her class. When she returned home, her home had been burgled. She was unable to tell what was her husband’s packing or the work of the burglar. She assured her visiting mother that all was well, and she was still needed to watch King’s daughter. King still needed to fly to the east coast to complete her grant presentation. King’s mother was unable to handle all that happened and insisted on flying home. While at the airport, a man stepped forward to help the frazzled King. King surrendered and accepted the help, realizing that if you can’t trust baseball legend Joe DiMaggio whom were you going to trust.

King arrived in DC. She defended her grant request and received approval. She went on to further her research and prove her hypothesis that cancer was not based on a virus, as was the theory at that time. After years of research covering genetics and how family cancer histories affected possible cancer risks, she would also confirm that BRCA gene mutations also had a life-altering impact on predicting cancer risks.

Through dogged determination to continue on and dedication through decades of scientific research, we have King to thank for her contribution to helping develop preventive genetic testing to help determine cancer risks for generations to come.

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