‘It’s Taken 40 Years, But It Worked’

For these two award-winning researchers, a lifetime of seeking answers on cancer has paid off in ways they couldn't have imagined.

 |  Transcript [PDF]

Gairdner Award laureates Mary-Claire King and Elizabeth Eisenhauer each spent over four decades investigating cancer. Their many years of dedication have paid off for patients around the world.

“I’ve been studying the problem of inherited predisposition to breast and ovarian cancer for more than 40 years now,” says King, 2021 Canada Gairdner International Award laureate.

“It was inspired originally by surgeons and oncologists who recognized that there were some families in which many women developed breast cancer, or worse ovarian cancer, despite having done everything right.”

At the time that King was doing this research, it wasn’t yet known how certain cancers can follow family lines. This discovery required tools that didn’t exist yet.

“We thought maybe there is a genetic predisposition that is inherited in these families, and maybe it’s possible to find it. And it worked. It’s taken 40 years, but it worked,” adds King.

“It saved the lives of a lot of women, and now with the technology of today, this entire project could be done by one graduate student in a summer rotation.”

Eisenhauer, 2021 Canada Gairdner Wightman Award laureate, was working on cancer treatments over that same span of time. She was also the Director of the Investigational New Drug Program at the Canadian Cancer Trials Group, and her focus was on drugs that had not yet been tested in people. Some drug candidates seemed very promising, but pharmaceutical companies weren’t interested in pushing them through clinical trials.

“Now at the time I began this work in 1982, a lot of pharmaceutical companies weren’t interested in investing in cancer because it was too high risk, so most of the work came from academic labs and scientists trying to find something that might bring a glimmer of hope to cancer patients if we could translate it into a therapy,” says Eisenhauer.

“Some of the studies we did turned out to be for drugs that were really important for cancer treatment and are used today to manage cancer patients, not only in Canada but around the world.”

Both Eisenhauer and King credit the collective strength of the entire field for continued progress for cancer patients.

“Unleashing the power of collaborative research to create communities that get there faster together was a really inspiring time for me,” says Eisenhauer.

“The two great things about science are being able to work with fabulous people and never having it be the end,” adds King. “I’m 75 years old and I fully anticipate doing this for years and years ahead.”

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