Dr. Mary-Claire King, the University of Washington geneticist who discovered the BRCA1 gene linked to increased breast-cancer risk, received the National Medal of Science, the top honor for scientific achievement.
The first time she flew to Washington, D.C., to receive the National Medal of Science, Dr. Mary-Claire King, a University of Washington genetics expert, never made it out of the airport.
An East Coast snowstorm canceled the ceremony in January, sending King back to Seattle. But better weather prevailed Thursday, when President Obama presented King and eight others with the nation’s highest recognition for scientific achievement. Obama also presented the National Medal of Technology and Innovation to eight other awardees.
“Every single American should be grateful for Mary-Claire King’s path,” Obama told a crowd of recipients and guests gathered in the East Room of the White House.
King, 70, was recognized for a 40-year career that has changed the way the world thinks about inherited breast cancer and pioneered genetic tools to support human-rights efforts on six continents to reunite families.
She discovered BRCA1, a gene that when mutated dramatically increases the risk of breast cancer, and she developed DNA strategies to reunite “disappeared” victims of military kidnappings with their relatives, methods now used in forensic anthropology and human-rights prosecutions worldwide.
“At a time when most scientists believed that cancer was caused by viruses, she relentlessly pursued her hunch that certain cancers were linked to inherited genetic mutations,” Obama said. “This self-described ‘stubborn’ scientist kept going until she proved herself right.”
As he draped the medal around her neck, King smiled broadly and embraced the president.
This was just latest top honor for King. In 2014, she won a prestigious Albert and Mary Lasker Foundation Award, often referred to as “America’s Nobels.”
Such recognition is “very nice,” King said in an interview this week, adding that she wished her early professors and some family members were alive to witness her success.
But accolades take a back seat to action for the Seattle professor of genome sciences and medicine, who is working to translate new research into practical ways to improve lives.
“One thing about genetics is, you’re only as good as today’s experiment,” she said.
King, who has a direct, down-to-earth manner, has discussed her work and its life-changing implications in a wide range of venues, including a 2014 appearance on the radio show The Moth.
Projects include efforts to expand the use of genetic screening for breast and ovarian cancer. In a controversial paper in 2014, she called for screening all U.S. women starting at age 30 for genetic mutations that can cause cancer, regardless of race or ethnicity.
“It’s certainly what I’m pushing every time I give a talk,” said King, who has estimated that such screening initially could identify 250,000 to 415,000 women with potentially harmful mutations in the BRCA1 or BRCA2 genes.
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“It’s coming along,” she said.
King, a Chicago native, started out studying statistics but switched to genetics in graduate school at the University of California, Berkeley, in the late 1960s. She turned her attention to breast cancer — and to the search for a potential genetic link to the disease.
Long before modern gene-sequencing techniques were developed, King showed that inherited mutations can play a significant role in cancer risk. Using data from the National Cancer Institute from more than 4,000 women, she demonstrated mathematically that breast and ovarian cancer in some families followed a pattern, most likely caused by a single gene.
In 1990, King and her Berkeley colleagues discovered the region on human chromosome 17 that harbored the gene, which they called BRCA1. Later, other scientists isolated the BRCA1 gene and discovered BRCA2.
Experts now know that 55 percent to 65 percent of women who inherit a harmful BRCA1 gene and about 45 percent of women who inherit a BRCA2 gene will develop breast cancer by age 70. Because of King’s early work, women with such inherited mutations can be identified, monitored and counseled.
King’s quest to prove that genetic mutations are responsible for breast cancers that run in families was dramatized in the 2013 film “Decoding Annie Parker,” starring Helen Hunt.
In 1995, King moved to the UW, where she said she’s been able to work with colleagues interested in translating research discoveries into clinical use.
“It has proven to be a terrific home to do good science,” she said. “We have an enormous number of physician-scientists who want to be collaborative. We have, in the same place, people who do basic science and the best medical school in America.”
The National Medal of Science was created in 1959 and is administered for the White House each year by the National Science Foundation. It recognizes people who have made outstanding contributions to science and engineering.
King is as busy as ever. In addition to pushing for broader genetic screening for women, she is continuing to search for more genes tied to breast cancer and to pursue research into the genetic underpinnings of schizophrenia, in part to determine the best medications to treat the disorder.
“I’m deeply involved in that,” she said. “I need another 20 years.”