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Scientists behind breast cancer gene discovery honoured with new plaques

Group who discovered BRCA2 gene standing next to new commemorative plaque installed at the ICR

Image: Researchers met at The Institute of Cancer Research, London, for the unveiling of a plaque which honours the scientists involved in the discovery of the BRCA2 gene (Image credit: John Nguyen/PA wire)

The team of scientists who made a ground-breaking gene discovery which transformed the field of cancer research have been celebrated with the unveiling of two commemorative plaques in London today.

The plaques pay homage to the 41 scientists who made the landmark discovery of the BRCA2 cancer gene in 1995. Mutations, or faults, in BRCA2 can cause breast, ovarian, prostate and also pancreatic cancer. Discovering the gene was a major scientific breakthrough which led to genetic tests for cancer and underpinned the development of new treatments for the disease, saving thousands of lives.

Installed by abcam, a global life science company, the plaques have been placed at the laboratories of The Institute of Cancer Research, London, in Chelsea and Sutton, where the discoveries were made. The two plaques celebrate the impact scientists from The Institute of Cancer Research (ICR) have made on the lives of cancer patients worldwide.

Despite the impact of these discoveries, a new survey shows that 70 per cent of UK adults do not know what the BRCA2 gene is – even though as many as one in 400 people are thought to carry a faulty version.

The survey, commissioned by abcam, found that 61 per cent of those surveyed assumed that all scientific breakthroughs happened as a result of one or two geniuses. In fact, it often takes a large team with a variety of skills, and collaboration between teams to achieve milestone discoveries.

In the same survey, 74 per cent of respondents agreed that more should be done to celebrate teams behind these breakthroughs. It is hoped that these commemorative plaques will do just that.

Paved the way for targeted drugs

Professor Andrew Tutt, Professor of Breast Oncology at The Institute of Cancer Research, London, said:

“We’re delighted to have the scientists who achieved such a remarkable discovery here in 1995 honoured in this way.

“The discovery of BRCA2 was an incredibly important moment, and its impacts continue to be felt decades later. In the shorter term, it allowed families with a history of breast cancer to receive genetic testing and be assessed for future risk. But it also spurred decades of research at the ICR into identifying cancer’s weaknesses which culminated in the development of PARP inhibitors – cutting-edge, targeted drugs for patients with cancers caused by faults in this gene.”

“In recognition of the achievements of this incredible team we hope that many passers-by will donate using the QR code to help scientists at the ICR continue to make more discoveries like this that defeat cancer.”

'As a team we worked day and night'

Sally Swift, Senior Scientific Officer The Institute of Cancer Research, London, was part of the team that made the BRCA2 gene discovery. She said:

“As a team we worked day and night with a shared passion to win the race to discover the BRCA2 gene. It was absolute hard graft and it’s very touching to see myself and my colleagues celebrated for our work with these plaques.

“I don't think I will ever forget the fact that I was part of that team, because it's massive. But I also feel just so lucky. I mean, it doesn't really get much better than finding a gene that's going to make such a tremendous difference in people's lives.”

'Historic discovery'

Professor Chris Lord, Professor of Cancer Genomics at The Institute of Cancer Research, London, said:

“Since the discovery of BRCA2 in 1995, ICR scientists and colleagues worldwide have worked tirelessly to identify treatments that kill cancer cells in people with BRCA2 mutations that leave their normal cells unharmed. The identification of BRCA2 ultimately led to the development of PARP inhibitors, a new type of drug that does exactly this. Both the discovery of the gene and the later discovery of PARP inhibitors have changed the lives of people who inherit BRCA2 mutations.”

“The discovery of the BRCA2 gene is a perfect example of how scientific innovation can transform people’s lives. There’s no doubt this historic discovery was made possible thanks to, not one individual, but to a dedicated team of talented scientists working together in a research institute that is solely focused on making breakthroughs like this.”

Alan Hirzel, CEO of abcam UK, said:

“In British culture, there’s one visual marker that has celebrated the exceptional work of individuals and their contributions to wider society: the blue plaque. But we all know that often, scientific progress is an iterative process that happens when we work together, so we wanted to create these striking new plaques to really champion the success of the collective.

“The BRCA2 gene discovery has paved the way for a huge amount of progress within the field of cancer research, and we hope that this spurs on a movement where teams of scientists are widely recognised and celebrated for their contribution to both science and society as a whole.”

About the BRCA2 discovery

In December 1995, a team of researchers at the ICR discovered the second breast cancer susceptibility gene, better known as BRCA2.

The BRCA2 gene discovery enabled families with a history of certain cancers to be assessed for future risk, and laid the groundwork for developing new, targeted treatments for cancers with faults in BRCA2.

The discovery was the culmination of a huge team effort, with 41 scientists named on the Nature publication describing the discovery, who worked at speed to identify the gene.

The team had funding from Cancer Research UK and support from Breast Cancer Now.

We now know that inherited mutations in BRCA2 and a similar gene called BRCA1 account for one in 20 of all breast cancers. Women with certain mutations in these genes can have over a 50 per cent chance of developing breast cancer by the age of 70.

Ten years after the discovery of BRCA2, the ICR, together with colleagues in the drug company KuDOS, identified a new way of treating cancer using PARP inhibitors in patients with mutations in their BRCA2 genes. PARP inhibitors are effective in treating some patients with breast cancer, and also ovarian, pancreatic and prostate cancer.

Passers-by will be able to scan a QR code located next to each plaque to donate to fund vital cancer research at the ICR.

Help the ICR make the next big discovery

Caroline Wheeldon, 41, from Barnsley, was diagnosed with stage 1 triple negative breast cancer in 2019. Just after finishing treatment, she found out she had a BRCA2 mutation. She said:

“When I found out I had cancer, my world fell apart. I knew straightaway that I wanted to have a double mastectomy to reduce my risk of it returning, and then when I found out I had the BRCA2 gene mutation, it was a no-brainer for me to have my ovaries removed too.

“I didn’t know anything about the BRCA2 mutation before I went through genetic testing. I was devastated to learn I was a carrier, but ultimately knowledge is power – the news does affect the rest of your life, but it also gives you options to manage your risk.

“I have two young children and, when they’re old enough, I’ll tell them about BRCA2 and what it might mean for them. It’s very reassuring to know that cancer research is leading to more advances in diagnosis and treatment, and I’m so thankful that by the time my children are grown up, they will hopefully have more options."

As both a charity and a world-leading research institute, the ICR relies on the generosity of supporters and donors to sustain its work into the future.

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Alan Ashworth breast cancer genetics PARP inhibitors genomics brca2 mike stratton
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