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David M. Livingston, MD

Emil Frei Professor of Genetics and Medicine
Harvard Medical School
Dana-Farber Cancer Institute
Boston, Massachusetts

Current Research

  • Seeking non-surgical, non-invasive preventive strategies for BRCA1-driven cancer.
  • Laboratory studies are conducted to identify novel targets to prevent inherited BRCA-associated breast cancers.
  • These studies could lead to critically needed preventive options for BRCA1 mutation carriers.

Women who inherit a mutation in the BRCA1 gene have a 40-80% risk of developing breast cancer, often before the age of 40. Preventive measures are limited to surgical removal of the breasts, a difficult choice a young woman may have to make in her twenties or thirties. Dr. Livingston has begun to decipher the nature of the earliest of these steps in the development of BRCA1 breast cancer and is conducting studies to identify strategies for early prevention.

Full Research Summary

Individuals with mutations in the BRCA1 gene have a high risk of breast or ovarian cancer. Currently, the only proven effective preventive strategy is surgical removal of the breasts and/or ovaries (prophylactic surgery). The primary focus of Dr. Livingston's research is to develop alternative prevention strategies, not involving invasive surgery, for inherited BRCA-associated breast cancers.

Normal BRCA1 works to repair DNA damage in the cells. Mutations in BRCA1 cause several aspects of DNA repair to malfunction, leading to increased DNA damage, which promotes cancer development and growth. Understanding which processes and proteins are affected by mutated BRCA1 is important.

Dr. Livingston's group is studying how mutations in BRCA1 cause normal cells to become cancer cells with the long-term goal of being able to selectively eliminate pre-malignant cells before cancers occur.

This year, the team will continue to investigate steps that are likely to commit normal, but BRCA1 mutation-bearing breast cells, to becoming the seeds of a malignancy. Knowing the nature of these steps in sufficient molecular detail would allow the development of novel and highly specific strategies to specifically eliminate these cells and prevent cancer from forming.


Dr. Livingston is a scientist/oncologist whose research has long been focused in the area of molecular cancer science. He received his AB cum laude from Harvard in 1961 and his MD magna cum laude from Tufts Medical School in 1965. He undertook his clinical training in internal medicine at Peter Bent Brigham Hospital and his scientific training at NCI and at Harvard Medical School. He joined the Harvard and DFCI faculty as Assistant Professor of Medicine in 1973 and has been a faculty member at HMS and at DFCI continuously since that time. He is now the Emil Frei Professor of Genetics and Medicine at HMS and DFCI, where he, most recently, served as Chair of the Executive Committee for Research and continues to serve as Director of The Charles A. Dana Division of Human Cancer Genetics and Deputy Director of the Dana-Farber/Harvard Cancer Center. Dr. Livingston was Director and Physician-in-Chief of DFCI from 1991-1995 and Chair, Board of Scientific Advisors at the National Cancer Institute from 1995-1999). He is a member of the Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Sciences, and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Grid Researcher Headshot - Livingston D

BCRF Investigator Since