Meet the real scientist behind a new film on the discovery of the breast cancer gene

  • Scientist Mary-Claire King is portrayed by Helen Hunt in the new film "Decoding Annie Parker."

    Scientist Mary-Claire King is portrayed by Helen Hunt in the new film "Decoding Annie Parker." Courtesy of Mary-Claire King

By Emily Wax-Thibodeaux
The Washington Post
Posted11/2/2013 6:00 AM

"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 the 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.

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

A: 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 on the Web and came up with the trailer to the film.

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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.

Q: How's the science?

A: 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.

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

A: 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 Ph.D 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.


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

A: 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.

Q: 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?

A: 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.

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