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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 breast tumor development in women with inherited mutations in BRCA1.

About 72 percent of women with inherited mutations in the BRCA1 gene will develop breast cancer by the age of 80, though 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 the earliest 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 BCRA1 gene is a tumor suppressor gene that is in every cell. Some people, however, will inherit a mutated form of the gene that greatly increases their risk of developing breast or ovarian cancer. Currently, the only proven effective way to prevent this 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 hard decision for women in their childbearing years to make. Dr. Livingston is studying how mutations in BRCA1 cause normal cells to become cancer cells in order to develop new, less invasive prevention strategies that would spare a woman’s 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 with BRCA1 mutations.

What he’s learned so far: Dr. Livingston has discovered an unexpected function of the BRCA1 protein, p220—promoting synthesis and controlling the integrity of RNA. This role is critical to coding, regulating, and expressing genes.

What’s next: He and his colleagues will continue to decipher the mechanisms that underlie BRCA1 mammary tumor suppression.


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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