As Helen Hunt plays her in a movie, the real Mary-Claire King still studies breast cancer


Scientist Mary-Claire King discovered the BRCA1 gene, which is responsible for some breast and ovarian cancers. ( /Courtesy of Mary-Claire King)

“Decoding Annie Parker,” a film starring Helen Hunt, weaves the emotional story of a family stalked by breast cancer with the riveting scientific investigation to find a genetic link to the disease.

The film combines a fictionalized account of Annie Parker’s obsession with her family’s breast cancer history with the true tale of Mary-Claire King, then a young scientist at the University of California at Berkeley. The geneticist and the Canadian cancer survivor were thousands of miles away but were both on personal missions to discover the genetic roots of breast and ovarian cancer at a time when the idea that the disease might be inherited was dismissed. King’s 1990 finding — that a single gene on chromosome 17, later known as BRCA1, was responsible for some breast and ovarian cancers — is considered one of the most important medical discoveries of our time. She has won numerous honors for her achievements in human genetics.

Now 67 and a professor of medicine and genome sciences at the University of Washington, King has been developing genomic technology called BROCA for testing for many genes responsible for inherited breast and ovarian cancer. (BROCA is not patented.)

“Decoding Annie Parker” is being screened around the country and will soon be commercially released. Here is an excerpt of an interview with King, who is played by Hunt.

Did you see the movie, and what did you think?

I didn’t know it was being made. I learned about it, after the fact, from one of my graduate students who is a fan of Helen Hunt, wanted to watch one of her movies, searched her name of the Web and came up with the trailer to the film.

We wrote the director. Nothing. As time went on, I began to worry. Apart from privacy issues, I worried that the film would be alarmist. Breast cancer is frightening enough without help from Hollywood. Four months later, the director sent us a link to the film, and my whole lab watched it together. We liked it very much — a huge relief. It is the story of Annie Parker. She and I had not met or corresponded. Our experience happened in parallel and were spliced together for the sake of the story. I think the film is beautifully acted. Of course, Helen Hunt is wonderful. She has all my little mannerisms down pat, perhaps from filmed interviews.

How’s the science?

I was not consulted on the science, of course, and to be honest, it is not presented as clearly or as interestingly as it could have been. It’s a bit of a lost opportunity.

How did you figure out that the BRAC1 mutation was linked to breast cancer?

I have met many families like Annie Parker’s, women who lost mothers and sisters and aunts to cancer. Studying the DNA of women and men from these families, applying genetics and math at every step, eventually led to a convincing answer. It took . . . from 1974 to 1990 to make the first proof.

My approach was to apply to breast cancer in families the same logic that I’d applied to evolutionary biology when I was a graduate student. My PhD project had been the demonstration that genetically, humans and chimpanzees are 99 percent identical. So thinking about inheritance, long-term between species or short-term between generations of a family, was natural for me.

Does your family have a history of breast cancer? Have you been tested?

No, we don’t. My motivation was more general than private. Until recently I hadn’t sequenced my own DNA. We’ve now sequenced the critical genes for everyone in the lab. Happily and as I expected, I have no damaging mutations in BRCA1 or any of the other now-known breast cancer genes.

How did other scientists react to your efforts to find a genetic basis for breast cancer? It was a mostly male world of science back then, wasn’t it?

In the 1970s and 1980s, the world of breast cancer research and the world of breast cancer clinical practice were both very largely male. The surgeons believed I was onto something in searching for a genetic basis of the disease, because they saw it in the experience of their patients. They were terrific to me. These gentlemen put me in touch with each other and then with their patients, especially patients who had developed breast cancer very young and whose families were severely affected. In my own field, genetics, for decades there was very little interest in the work. It was too far from the mainstream.

Which then was focused on what?

When I began the breast cancer work, the dominant theory in the field was the viral theory of cancer. The connection between viruses and human cancer was eventually sorted out by Mike Bishop and Harold Varmus, who showed that viruses, when integrated into human DNA, act as oncogenes. Oncogenes go mutant in tumors but almost never in people. The idea of genes with inherited mutations that would lead to cancer was quite different.

In retrospect, there was something liberating about being of no interest to the leaders of my field. If one is ignored, there are no expectations to meet. There was great freedom in being invisible.

Is it still hard to be a female scientist? Is there more pressure and competition now?

The social structure of science is now very different than 40 years ago, wonderfully so. But scientific success is still difficult for young women because the years that one must be most productive, in order to establish oneself as an independent investigator, coincide exactly with the years of childbearing. It is a tremendous challenge. It can be done, but it takes a village. We need to maintain constant attention to the personal and institutional and policy details that can keep the chance for scientific life open for young women.

It’s difficult to say if science is more competitive now. In my field, genetics and genomics, the technology now is so breathtakingly fabulous that we are all working at full tilt 24-7. We are probably driven partly by competition, but we are mostly driven, I think, by living in a revolutionary period of discovery. It’s too much fun to slow down.

What was your reaction to Angelina Jolie’s announcement that she decided to have a preventive double mastectomy after testing positive for the harmful mutation of the BRCA1 gene?

I think she got it exactly right. Given her work, I think she was extremely brave to make her experience public. Angelina Jolie will be to inherited breast cancer what Rock Hudson was to AIDS, but Angelina Jolie will live.

Her being so open about her experience will save the lives of many women. I appreciate that Angelina Jolie’s experience may not resonate with women who have not grown up with breast cancer running through their family.

It is certainly very hard to grasp the idea of voluntarily removing healthy breasts. But if one’s mothers and aunts and sisters have died of breast cancer or of ovarian cancer, then one’s perspective is very different. It’s obviously a drastic step to have a preventive mastectomy or oophorectomy. It is not a fate or a decision I would wish on anyone. But our genes aren’t going to change if we ignore them.

Emily Wax-Thibodeaux is a National staff writer who covers veterans, veterans' affairs and the culture of government. She's an award-winning former foreign correspondent who covered Africa and India for nearly a decade. She also covered immigration, crime and education for the Metro staff.
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