Frederick P. Li, Who Proved a Genetic Cancer Link, Dies at 75

By Grady, Denise | International New York Times, June 24, 2015 | Go to article overview

Frederick P. Li, Who Proved a Genetic Cancer Link, Dies at 75


Grady, Denise, International New York Times


He helped prove that heredity and genetics play a major role in some forms of cancer.

Dr. Frederick P. Li, who helped prove to a doubting medical establishment that heredity and genetics play a major role in some forms of cancer, died on June 12 at his home in Brookline, Mass. He was 75.

His wife, Dr. Elaine Shiang, confirmed his death and said the probable cause was Alzheimer's disease. Dr. Li had dementia for a number of years and retired in 2008 from the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston, where he had worked for more than 30 years.

Dr. Li, who was also a professor at Harvard's medical school and its school of public health, was best known for research that he began in the 1960s at the National Cancer Institute with Dr. Joseph F. Fraumeni. They discovered four families that, Dr. Fraumeni said in an interview, were "loaded with cancer." Generation after generation, family members were struck down by different forms of the disease, often when they were children or young adults. Some who survived one type of cancer later developed another.

"It was devastating," Dr. Fraumeni said, adding that in that era "we knew almost nothing about the cause of cancer."

As the two researchers gathered information, the detailed family trees they drew were dotted with grim, shaded symbols indicating people living with cancer and those who had died of it. The same pattern of disease emerged again and again, suggesting that a dominant gene, passed from parent to child, was predisposing family members to various cancers.

The doctors first described their findings in the journal Annals of Internal Medicine in 1969. The title of their report included the phrase "A Familial Syndrome?" Dr. Li insisted on the question mark, Dr. Fraumeni said, because he did not think they had enough data to state their hypothesis as a fact.

They found more families like the first four and confirmed their suspicions. The condition they described, which came to be called Li- Fraumeni syndrome, is rare and dreaded, because people who have it are almost sure to develop cancer.

When the researchers identified the syndrome, they did not know which gene caused it. They stored blood samples from the affected families in the hope that future research would find the answer.

"We thought genetic factors were involved," Dr. …

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