Bowel & Cancer Research reports the death on June 2nd in Omaha, USA, of Dr Henry Lynch. Dr Lynch, who for a time was a professional boxer fighting under the name Hammerin' Hank, was a 6ft 5 gentle giant who leaves a significant legacy in the field of cancer genetics.

More than 50 years ago, Dr Lynch had an idea that cancer was prevalent in certain families, and that these families had a genetic pre-disposition to developing the disease.

As with many pioneers, his ideas were against the accepted, mainstream academic view held at the time which was that cancer was caused by environmental toxins.

In order to prove his theory he documented by hand the family relationships of individuals diagnosed with cancer, creating family trees to test his theory. With painstaking work he was soon able to present to fellow academics, and the world at large, compelling data to support his claims.

Further work identified several genes that contribute to the condition, which became known as Lynch Syndrome, also known as Hereditary Nonpolyposis Colorectal Cancer, or HNPCC. The genetic mutations are passed down through the family and increase the risk of bowel (colorectal) cancer as well as other cancers, including small intestine, stomach, uterine and liver.

Lynch Syndrome is the most common form of inherited cancer, affecting around 1 individual in every 300, or around 3 - 5% of bowel cancer cases. The vast majority of bowel cancers do not have a familial link. Lynch Syndrome may be suspected in the following cases:

  • Developing bowel or endometrial cancer younger than age 50.

  • Developing bowel cancer, endometrial cancer, or other type of cancer with specific characteristics known as mismatch repair deficiency (MMR-D) or high-level microsatellite instability (MSI-H) found on testing of the tumour specimen.

  • Developing bowel cancer and other types of cancer linked with Lynch syndrome separately or at the same time.

  • Bowel cancer in 1 or more first-degree relatives who also has or has had another Lynch syndrome-related cancer, with 1 of these cancers developing before age 50. The phrase “first-degree relatives” include parents, siblings, and children.

  • Bowel cancer in 2 or more first- or second-degree relatives with another Lynch syndrome-related cancer. “Second-degree relatives” include aunts, uncles, grandparents, grandchildren, nephews, and nieces. 

A simple blood test to identify genetic markers of the syndrome is used to diagnose Lynch Syndrome. This usually takes between 6 - 8 weeks to be verified.

Dr Lynch was buried in the cemetery across the street from the Creighton hospital which hosts the Henry Lynch Cancer Center. He is survived by his daughters, his two brothers, ten grandchildren and nine great grandchildren.

He was among the most decent people in academics.

Dr Judy Marber, chief of the division of cancer genetics and prevention, Dana Farber Cancer Institute, Boston.