Campus & Community

Tanner lecturer and geneticist on ‘Genomics, Race, and Medicine’

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Cancer researcher, geneticist, and social activist Mary-Claire King will deliver the 2006-07 Tanner Lectures on Human Values.

The University of Washington scientist was the first to prove that heredity is a factor in breast cancer.

King’s Seattle lab specializes in the genetic analysis of inheritable cancers and deafness. Researchers there are also looking for the genetic markers that increase the risk of HIV, systemic lupus, and schizophrenia.

Tanner-related events

King will be at Harvard Wednesday (Nov. 15) through Nov. 17. Her appearance will follow the traditional Tanner format: a formal lecture on each of the first two days, followed by a seminar on the third day. The collective title of the lectures is “Genomics, Race, and Medicine.”

In genetic terms, there is only one race, said King in a phone interview. “All humans are Africans.” They share 95 percent or more of the ancient variations found in sequenced DNA. Most other genetic variations are very young – some just hundreds of years old, or less. These recent and highly localized mutations don’t alter, King said, the fact of humankind’s deep genetic kinship.

Well, then, how are we different? Just in the outward signs of race, said King. These superficial artifacts are largely the result of protective mutations in the past 15,000 to 60,000 years: skin color; eye color and shape; hair color; and facial morphology. But in defiance of sense and scientific reality, it is these outward features that have given race its “enormously defining historical meaning,” said King. Mice and cows share the same palette of visible genetic variations. “But cows do not seem to notice the difference. They don’t seem to give a moo” about race, said King, who in 2003 received an honorary doctorate from Harvard. “We have made a huge deal out of this.”

In the realm of medicine, race should have as little meaning as in the social sphere, said King.

“Most mutations that have a big impact on illness are recent mutations that are individually rare,” she said.

With the exception of treatment for sickle cell anemia, knowing a patient’s race is irrelevant to providing care, said King.

Race also seems to have little meaning when it comes to administering drugs, she said – though she acknowledged that some studies that indicate racial differences in drug efficacy.

Knowing a person’s individual genotype is a much better indicator of a drug’s potential benefits than race, which King called “poor shorthand” for understanding genetic differences.

The Tanner Lectures, delivered at nine major U.S. and European universities each year, are awarded to people whose work relates to uncommon achievement in promoting human values.

Harvard Medical School’s Paul Farmer, for example, delivered the Tanner Lectures in 2005 at the University of Utah, with reflections on human values and human rights in Haiti and elsewhere.

King’s contributions to human values are a mix of science and social action. She spent 15 years on a fervent search for the genetic link to an inheritable higher risk for breast cancer. She found it in 1990 and identified the BRCA 1 gene as the culprit (and later the similar BRCA 2 gene). Her discovery opened a floodgate of research into the biology of cancer and suggested the possibility that future cancers could be treated with gene therapy.

King also uses science in the arena of human rights. Starting in the 1980s, she and her research partners have used DNA sequencing tools to identify the remains of victims killed during civil strife – first in Argentina, Mexico, and El Salvador, and now in Bosnia, Ethiopia, and Rwanda.

“All of us speak from our scientist perspective, and from our citizen perspective,” she said.

King, who grew up in suburban Chicago, was a graduate student in genetics at the University of California at Berkeley in 1966, at the age of 19. But she resigned her doctoral work amid the turbulence of the Vietnam protests, and worked briefly for Ralph Nader investigating the effects of pesticides on migrant workers. (Her lab today examines environmental factors that intermingle with genetics to increase cancer risk.)

But it was the larger questions that science could answer that brought King back into graduate work. In her dissertation, she examined the evolutionary link between chimpanzees and humans. Her conclusion was controversial: that genetically the two species are 99 percent identical.

King’s early research made it seem likely that humans had genetically diverged from chimps only 5 million years ago – twice as fast as the fossil record suggested.

The genetics connecting one group to another still captivates King, whose work searches for the DNA-level links among population groups that heighten the risk for cancer and other diseases. Her work on the breast-cancer gene first used a cohort of women of Ashkenazi (eastern European) Jewish descent.

King is a powerful champion of women in the sciences. “I would not have the job I have without the women who have gone before,” she said. “I am eternally grateful.”

King’s lectures will be followed by a panel discussion on Nov. 17 with Harvard professors Evelynn M. Hammonds, professor of the history of science and of African and African American studies; Jennifer Hochschild, Henry LaBarre Jayne Professor of Government and professor of African and African-American studies; and Robert Truog, professor of medical ethics and anesthesiology (pediatrics) at the Medical School.

The Tanner Lectures on Human Values, a nonprofit foundation, is administered by the University of Utah. It was funded by philanthropist Obert Clark Tanner and his wife Grace Adams Tanner.

Each season, Tanner lecturers – 26 from Harvard since 1976 – are chosen based on their contributions to human values. They come from the humanities, the sciences and the creative arts, as well as from business and public life.

Lectures are delivered annually at the nine schools that have permanent Tanner lectureships: Harvard, Princeton, Yale, Berkeley, Stanford, the University of Michigan, the University of Utah, and at Oxford and Cambridge.

At Harvard, the lectures are cosponsored by the president’s office (interim President Derek Bok will host the opening dinner) and by the Edmond J. Safra Foundation Center for Ethics.

The lectures are dedicated to the memory of Clarence Irving Lewis 1906, Ph.D. 1910, who served on Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences from 1920 to 1953.