Skip to main content
Premium Trial:

Request an Annual Quote

Mary-Claire King on Getting into Genetics, BRCA1, and Myriad

In The New York Times Mary-Claire King talks about how she got into genetic research, her work discovering the BRCA1 gene, and the time Myriad Genetics threatened her with legal action.

Now at the University of Washington, King's work on BRCA1 "transformed the diagnosis and treatment" of breast cancer, the Times writes. It all began with a genetics course she took while she was in graduate school studying statistics. After school, she taught in Chile, but a military coup there ended that, and she returned to the US where she was offered a job at the University of California, San Francisco. 

Her discovery of BRCA1 happened only because of a study by the National Cancer Institute on oral contraceptives that included 1,500 women with breast cancer. King asked to include questions about family history to the study. 

She determined that breast cancer tended to cluster in families and hypothesized that there was a genetic component to the disease. In 1990 she and her colleagues published evidence that BRCA1 was associated with breast cancer. 

"My paper triggered a race in public and private laboratories, including my own, to clone the gene," she says. 

After BRCA1 was cloned, however, Myriad received a patent for it, which, King said, prevented many women from getting tested for the gene since they couldn't afford the price tag for Myriad's test. 

King tells the Times that Myriad also sent her a cease-and-desist letter from the company to stop studying BRCA1. The attorney general for the state of Washington got involved and told Myriad that it would represent King if the company continued to go after her. 

"I heard nothing more," from Myriad afterward, she says. 

When the US Supreme Court ruled in 2013 that human genes cannot be patented but synthetic DNA, or cDNA, is patentable, King was jubilant.

"I felt terrific," she says. "Since then, testing is far more widely available and the price has fallen significantly."