cover image A Fatal Inheritance: How a Family Misfortune Revealed a Deadly Medical Mystery

A Fatal Inheritance: How a Family Misfortune Revealed a Deadly Medical Mystery

Lawrence Ingrassia. Holt, $29.99 (320p) ISBN 978-1-250-83722-6

The discovery of a fatal inheritable cancer is recapped in this arresting account from journalist Ingrassia (Billion Dollar Brand Club), whose family suffers from the disease. Through interviews with other affected families, Ingrassia emphasizes the extreme devastation wrought by Li-Fraumeni syndrome, which has a 50% chance of being passed down from parent to child (“These families... are extremely fatalistic, particularly the older people who have [lost] so many relatives,” explains one doctor; Ingrassia notes that many gene carriers die as children, compounding the families’ trauma). He pairs these harrowing accounts with a riveting scientific detective story. Through the 1960s, scientists believed all cancers were viral or environmental, but in 1969, two cancer researchers, Frederick Li and Joseph Fraumeni, compiled medical charts and death certificates of children diagnosed with a rare cancer, rhabdomyosarcoma, and were shocked to find many were related. Li and Fraumeni tracked the children’s families for 20 years, over which time 40 of the 57 family members were diagnosed with 52 different cancers. In 1990, the gene mutation that causes LFS was identified, kicking off a hunt for more genetically caused cancers; however, researchers have yet to develop successful treatments for LFS. Ingrassia’s account is at its most wrenching when he recalls his own loss—all three of his siblings have succumbed to the disease. It’s an evocative look at a pivotal episode in the history of cancer research. (May)

Correction: A previous version of this review incorrectly stated that the gene mutation that causes LFS was identified in 1979.