All the talk over the past couple of days about the patentability of the BRCA1 gene got me thinking about the heady, headline-making days 16 years ago when the story began, a story of a multi-year race to claim a gene.
It was September 1994 that researchers from the University of Utah and Myriad Genetics announced that they had cloned and sequenced the BRCA1 gene. Their paper appeared in the Oct. 7, 1994, issue of Science, but according to an account in the Sept. 15 issue of The New York Times by Natalie Angier, the embargo had broken via a television news report (a quaint footnote of its own, a time when news still broke on TV).
Angier’s write up describes the BRCA1 gene as a “ferociously coveted” “genetic trophy,” and the culmination of an “international, race.” An editorial on the news from the October 1994 issue of Nature Genetics called it “the glittering prize.”
Angier quoted the leader of the 45-member Utah/Myriad research team, geneticist Dr. Mark Skolnick, as saying that it felt “very, very good” to have captured the gene. The Times’ article also cited the gracious loser of the race, Mary-Claire King. Ph.D., then at the University of California at Berkeley, now at the University of Washington, who had these kind words for her rivals: “ This is beautiful work…these guys deserve their success.”
Dr. King began pursuing breast cancer genes in the late 1970s, had narrowed down the search to human chromosome 17 in 1990, and had a key role in coining the BRCA designation a year later. (She said it was in part inspired by Paul Broca, a 19th century French pathologist who pioneered recognition of breast cancer pedigrees.)
I recall seeing her walk to the podium to give a talk at the annual meeting of the American Society of Human Genetics in Montreal in October 1994, just after the Myraid paper came out. She received a standing ovation from the large, packed audience, and began by saying that she was okay with the outcome, with the fact that the guys from Utah had beaten her to the gene.
Now, 16 years later, the news is that the prize may not have been so commercially glittering after all.
—Mitchel Zoler (on Twitter @mitchelzoler)