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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


Goal: To discover non-surgical, non-invasive preventive strategies for BRCA1-driven cancer.

Impact: Dr. Livingston is investigating how the loss of BRCA1 function leads to the development of breast cancer. His work could inform ways to prevent this process and impact the lives of women and men born with a BRCA1 mutation.

What’s next: He and his colleagues will continue to investigate the molecular and biological events that trigger mammary tumor development in women with inherited BRCA1 and 2 mutations.

About 72 percent of women with inherited mutations in the BRCA1 gene will develop breast cancer by the age of 80, although it often occurs before the age of 40. Currently, the only preventive measure is to remove the breasts, surgically, a particularly difficult decision for young women in their child-bearing years. Dr. Livingston has made significant progress in understanding both the earliest and, very recently, some of the latest steps in the development of BRCA1-driven breast cancer, which he hopes will lead to new, less invasive prevention methods.

Full Research Summary


Research area: Identifying strategies for the early prevention of breast cancer in women with inherited mutations in the BRCA1 gene.

Impact: The BRCA1 gene is a tumor suppressor gene that exists in every cell. Some people, however, inherit a mutated form of the gene that greatly increases their risk of developing breast and/or ovarian cancer. Currently, the only known, effective way of preventing these cancers from occurring is to surgically remove the breasts and/or ovaries. While the decision to undergo this surgery is difficult for every woman, it is a particularly problematic decision for women in their childbearing years. Dr. Livingston is studying at the molecular level how mutations in BRCA1 cause normal cells to become cancer cells. His major goal is to develop new, non- invasive BRCA1 cancer prevention strategies that spare the breasts and ovaries.

Current investigation: He and his team have been conducting laboratory studies aimed at discovering molecular changes that promote the development of breast cancer in women withinherited BRCA1 mutations.  Recently, they have succeeded in obtaining a comprehensive and detailed view of the gene expression events that participate in BRCA1 breast cancer development. This information has not heretofore been obtained, and it is likely to make possible new opportunities to determine which genes participate meaningfully in BRCA1 tumor development. Such information, in particular, has the potential to create new opportunities to impede BRCA1 breast cancer development, non-invasively.

What he’s learned so far: Dr. Livingston has recently identified a series of newly defined molecular and biological steps that contribute to the development of BRCA1 breast cancer cells.

What’s next: He and his colleagues are now beginning to work on ways of inhibiting steps that trigger BRCA1 breast cancer development as an approach to non-invasive BRCA1 breast and/or ovarian cancer prevention.


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 Distinguished Professor of Genetics and Medicine at HMS and DFCI, where he, formerly, served as Chair of the Executive Committee for Research. He also continues to serve as Director of The Charles A. Dana Division of Human Cancer Genetics. He also served as Deputy Director of the Dana-Farber/Harvard Cancer Center (2000-2019) and was Director and Physician-in-Chief of DFCI from 1991-1995. He also served as Chair of the Board of Scientific Advisors at the National Cancer Institute from 1995-1999. He is a member of the National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Medicine, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the AACR Academy.

Grid Researcher Headshot - Livingston D

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