A pioneer of cancer genetics, Henry Lynch, died on Sunday (June 2) at the age of 91, according to a press release from Creighton University, where he spent the bulk of his career. Lynch studied the cancer histories of more than 3,000 families to find genetic links to their diseases, states the release, ultimately discovering hereditary breast-ovarian cancer syndrome and hereditary nonpolyposis colon cancer.
“Henry Lynch occupies a distinguished place in the pantheon of the greatest cancer geneticists of the modern era,” says Kenneth Offit of Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center to The Washington Post.
Lynch grew up in Depression-era New York. He is a veteran who served during World War II in the Pacific, according to the release. After his service, he was a professional boxer going by the nickname “Hammerin’ Hank,” until he returned to school in the late 1940s.
After completing doctoral work in human genetics from the University of Texas at Austin, Lynch received a medical degree from the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston in 1960. He joined Creighton University in 1967.
Lynch started studying the hereditary causes of colon cancer in the 1960s. “Nobody believed me,” Creighton’s statement quotes Lynch having said. “At that time, cancer was all thought to be caused by environment. Exposure to chemicals. But I knew we had something here. I knew we could potentially save lives.” In 1984, Lynch founded the Hereditary Cancer Center at Creighton University.
Lynch had a patient who was an alcoholic and believed he would die of colon cancer because many people in his family did, reports The Post. Thinking there was a genetic link, Lynch decided to investigate the heritability of cancer risk. He traced through the family trees of his patients to discover that the risk for some colorectal cancers is heritable. This syndrome was named after him and is now known as Lynch syndrome.
Through his research on families, Lynch discovered the hereditary breast-ovarian cancer syndrome, which later helped researchers identify the mutations to BRCA genes that are used to diagnose hereditary breast cancer. This discovery has allowed patients who test positive for certain BRCA mutations to undergo preventive surgeries that remove their breasts or ovaries—potentially saving many lives.
Lynch is survived by three children, 10 grandchildren, and nine great-grandchildren, reports The Post.