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Structural Symmetries: A 25-year tribute to the discovery of the lifesaving BRCA2 gene

Date posted: 21 November 2019

Image shown: Structural Symmetries by Chris Wilson at St. James's Hospital, commemorating the discovery of the BRCA2 gene. Photo credit: Anthony Edwards, Medical Illustration, St. James’s Hospital, Dublin 8

The Trinity St. James’s Cancer Institute unveiled a sculpture of ‘Structural Symmetries’ at St. James’s Hospital on 7 November 2019. The sculpture, created by artist Chris Wilson, marks the 25th year of the discovery of the lifesaving BRCA2 gene.

An Irish family (known in scientific circles as CRC 186 family) played a central role in the discovery of the BRCA2 gene by participating in cancer genetics research. Prof. Peter Daly, Ms. Wilma Ormiston and Dr. Ross McManus from St. James’s Hospital and Trinity College Dublin were among the authors of the paper published in “Science” in 1994 to announce that BRCA2 had been discovered.

Present at the unveiling of ‘Structural Symmetries’ were members of the extended CRC 186 family and others who cooperated with the research team in gathering accurate and reliable information along with relevant blood and tissue samples. This resource, combined with data and samples from other families around the world, helped to discover the BRCA2 gene which has led to improved care for many people worldwide.

The artwork pays homage to the contributions of participating families and the contribution of St. James’s Hospital and Trinity College staff to the international effort led by Professor Sir Michael Stratton, then working at the Institute of Cancer Research, Sutton, Surrey and now Head of the Sanger Institute, in the search for BRCA2. Chris Wilson’s sculpture is a DNA-based design interpreting the various pathways used to visually represent DNA sequencing.

‘Structural Symmetries’ Curator Rina Whyte reflected on the development of the artwork:

‘This project was such a privilege to be a part of; right from the outset and the first meeting with the St. James’s team I could see the layers of complexity but also interest that were available to the artist and also the various ‘publics’ that the artwork would reach. This artwork needed to resonate with a general public, the consultants, scientists, geneticists, cancer patients, staff and visitors to the hospital. It needed to have many layers of interest and understanding whilst also celebrating a huge achievement in genetics.

The artist’s brief we created was for a permanent artwork that would commemorate the discovery of the BRCA2 gene with input from the Dublin family that were central to this discovery. This family had been patients of Professor Peter Daly of St. James’s Hospital which led to their collaboration with Prof Stratton in the UK. They were the key that opened the door to the discovery of the BRCA2 gene. In the wider context of the artwork, it was crucial to have their involvement in the process of creating the piece.

Chris Wilson, the artist, worked closely with myself but also with the genetics team and a member of the family in the development of the work. St. James’s were firmly on board for the creative journey and many meetings were had in the development of the work. Chris took on board every small but important detail both at the start of the project but also as the project developed. This artwork was given breath to grow through the process and this is testimony to its success in St. James’s Hospital.’

Professor Sir Michael Stratton launched the ‘Structural Symmetries’ artwork at St. James’s Hospital and remarked that the discovery of BRCA2 ‘has helped to prevent cancer deaths worldwide and has changed the lives of many for the better.’

In 2019, following further research which has focused on developing preventive strategies and the development of targeted treatments for mutation carriers who are affected by cancer, better management options can be offered to this population. Non-carriers, too, have benefitted from this knowledge.

About the research
Dr. Michael Stratton of the Institute of Cancer Research, Sutton, Surrey, who was the leader of an international consortium, made contact with researchers at St. James’s Hospital, Dublin, in 1989, as he recognised the potential value of Irish families in the search for BRCA genes. Large families with a high number of affected and unaffected individuals were important in applying the available molecular technologies to the problem. Dr. Peter Daly was introduced to Dr. Stratton and it became a fruitful collaboration. The Irish families together with other families from around the world helped to discover the BRCA2 gene in 1994.

About Chris Wilson
Chris Wilson was born in 1959 in Glengormley, Co. Antrim. He gained a BA (Hons) Fine Art from Brighton Polytechnic in 1982 and an MA Fine Art from the University of Ulster in 1985. Over the last 30 years, Wilson has exhibited in Ireland, the UK, Canada, Croatia, Germany, France, Bulgaria and the USA. His work is represented in many public and private collections including the Arts Council of England, Arts Council of Northern Ireland and Ireland; Translink, Belfast; Bombardier, Montreal; the Office of Public Works, Dublin; the Department of Foreign Affairs, Dublin; Irish Life, Dublin; McNamara Foundation, Maine, USA; British Telecom; Sport NI at the Tollymore National Outdoor Centre; University of Alabama and Queens University amongst others. He has completed over 16 large scale public realm commissions. In 2016, Wilson was awarded the RUA Gold Medal and the Paul Henry Landscape Prize at the 134th Royal Ulster Academy Annual Exhibition. www.chriswilsonartist.com

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