Little known in the 1970s about the causes of cancer, Mary-Claire King

Interviewee: Mary-Claire King. Mary-Claire King speaks about how much was yet to be understood about the genetic mechanisms of cancer when she began her hunt for genes associated with breast cancer. (DNAi Location: Applications > Genes and medicine > Gene hunting > Mary-Claire King > What was known)

When I began working on the problem of breast cancer in families we knew very little about the causes of cancer. There were elegant studies of the morphology of cancer cells and how they differed from normal cells, but this was before the discovery of oncogenes, it was before the discovery of tumor suppressor genes, of which of course BRCA1 and BRCA2 turned out to be examples. It was before the discovery of the critical role of DNA repair and mutator genes. So the mechanism of how a normal cell becomes a cancer cell and how that happens in breast epithelium or ovarian epithelium or in the lung or in the colon, was not well understood, although the phenomenon was beautifully described. For me, since I was looking at this from a genetic point of view, it was, the level of ignorance was okay because what I was asking was, can I follow chromosomes, and the fact that the mechanisms of cancer were not understood wasn't critical to my being able to proceed. What I needed was a greater understanding of DNA itself.

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