A University of Washington researcher is one of five scientists to earn a prestigious Albert and Mary Lasker Foundation Award, for her key discoveries in DNA research, including work related to breast cancer.
The researcher, Mary-Claire King, won the Lasker~Koshland Special Achievement Award in Medical Science. Each of the five prizes, which include a $250,000 honorarium, will be presented Sept. 19 in New York.
The award citation credits King with making “bold, imaginative and diverse contributions to medical science and human rights.”
In 1990, King identified a region of human DNA that contains the BRCA1 gene, which gives a heightened risk of developing breast cancer if mutated. That led to the isolation of the gene itself, paving the way for identifying women who’ve inherited a mutated version so they can be monitored and counseled.
Most Read Local Stories
- Seattle-area residents should prepare for wild weather ahead, forecasters say
- King County customers of restaurants, theaters, gyms must show proof of COVID-19 vaccination or negative test
- COVID-19 kills Moses Lake couple, orphans their 8-year-old after visit to the fair
- 15-year-old SeaTac girl charged with murder, hit-and-run in July death of Maple Valley runner
- Scientists spot rare, mysterious right whales in waters off Alaska
King also came up with a way to screen women for a number of other genes that predispose women to breast or ovarian cancer, or both.
She also used her genetic expertise to help find children in Argentina who had been kidnapped as infants or born while their mothers were in prison during the military regime of the late 1970s and early 1980s. Her work has also been used to help identify victims of mass disasters and soldiers who were missing in action.
“What has always impressed me about Dr. King is her determination, fueled by the people she wants to help,” Robert H. Waterston, chairman of UW’s Department of Genome Sciences, said in a news release. “The idea that breast cancer could be related to a specific gene was not widely accepted, yet Dr. King continued to pursue that path and she pushed for the implementation of genetic tests in the clinic, pushed with others to make that information free and available, and pushed against patents in the field — succeeding on all fronts.”
A UW spokeswoman Monday said King was out of the country and unavailable for an interview.
In an article in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) Monday, King argued that the time has come for all women to be tested for the cancer-predisposing genetic mutations. She recommended a routine test be offered to every woman at around age 30.
Widespread testing in the U.S. would identify from 350,000 to 415,000 adult women “for whom breast and ovarian cancer is both highly likely and potentially preventable,” King estimated.
Recent studies show that only 19 percent of U.S. primary-care doctors accurately assessed family history for genetic screening, she said.
In population studies conducted in Israel, she and colleagues found that half of families with potentially dangerous mutations had no history of breast or ovarian cancer that would have triggered doctors’ attention.
Without population screening, she said, women with the mutations from those families would not have been identified until they developed cancer.
“To identify a woman as a carrier only after she develops cancer is a failure of cancer prevention,” King and her colleagues wrote.
In an interview with The New York Times, King referred to actress Angelina Jolie, who went public last year with her surgeries after discovering she was a carrier of a dangerous mutation.
With widespread screening, women who learn they have such a mutation “can begin to think about what that means and be referred to a high-risk clinic” to develop a prevention plan, King said.
“Women do not benefit by practices that ‘protect’ them from information regarding their own health,” King wrote in JAMA.
King, 68, parlayed a childhood fascination with solving puzzles into an interest first in mathematics, later turning to population genetics and finally epidemiology, human genetics and molecular biology.
In genetics, she was able to design the puzzle and track down the important answers, she told The Seattle Times in a profile a few years after she moved to Seattle in the mid-1990s.
“To me, the most interesting questions are those that have potentially a very practical outcome,” she said then. “I cannot separate doing science from doing good work. To do science is to try to improve the lives of people.”
The Lasker award for clinical medical research will be shared by Drs. Mahlon DeLong of Emory University in Atlanta and Alim Louis Benabid of Joseph Fourier University in Grenoble, France, for developing a surgical treatment for Parkinson’s disease.
In work that began in the late 1960s, DeLong traced Parkinson’s symptoms to overactivity in a specific part of the brain.
Benabid, following up on that research independently, showed in 1995 that stimulating this area with a surgically implanted electrode could ease some Parkinson’s symptoms.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved that approach for treating advanced Parkinson’s disease in 2002. More than 100,000 people worldwide have received the therapy, the Lasker foundation said.
The Lasker award for basic medical research will be shared by Peter Walter of the University of California, San Francisco, and Kazutoshi Mori of Kyoto University in Japan. They made key discoveries about how cells detect and deal with proteins that have not been folded correctly, which can make them harmful. The research has shed light on certain inherited diseases, including cystic fibrosis, the foundation said.
The Lasker Foundation was established in 1942. Albert Lasker was an advertising executive who died in 1952. His wife, Mary, was a longtime champion of medical research before her death in 1994.
Seattle Times health reporter Carol M. Ostrom contributed to this report.