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Mary-Claire King Wins Lasker Award; Calls For Wider Cancer Genetic Screening

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Congratulations to University of Washington geneticist Mary-Claire King on being awarded the 2014 Lasker-Koshland Special Achievement Award in Medical Science (sometimes called an American version of the Nobel Prize). After winning a major award, most people simply hope they’ll remember to thank all the right people in their acceptance speech. But King used the occasion to renew her call for broader genetic screening among women to detect mutations associated with breast and ovarian cancer.

King, most widely known for discovering the association between mutations of the gene BRCA1 and breast cancer, laid out the case for offering genetic screening for BRCA1 and BRCA2 to every woman at around age 30 as part of normal medical care in an article for the Journal of the American Medical Association. (She issued a similar call back in May at her “On the Shoulders of Giants” talk at the 2014 World Science Festival).

“Many women with mutations in these genes are identified as carriers only after their first cancer diagnosis because their family history of cancer was not sufficient to suggest genetic testing,” King writes in JAMA. “To identify a woman as a carrier only after she develops cancer is a failure of cancer prevention.”

For years, U.S. health officials have supported BRCA1 and BRCA2 testing based on family history of cancer, but not for the wider population. Some critics of wider screening are unsure if it’s useful for women with no history of cancer in their families to uncover mutations in BRCA1 or BRCA2. This may have been an appropriately cautious approach in years past, but King says new data—including her latest study, a large population-based genetic screening of Ashkenazi Jews in Israel, supports broadening the scope of screening.

“Population-wide screening will require significant efforts to educate the public and to develop new counseling strategies, but this investment will both save women’s lives and provide a model for other public health programs in genomic medicine,” King writes. “Women do not benefit by practices that ‘protect’ them from information regarding their own health. They should have the choice to learn if they carry an actionable mutation in BRCA1 or BRCA2.”

The other Lasker winners announced Monday were: Kyoto University’s Kazutoshi Mori, Peter Walter of the University of California, San Francisco, Alim Louis Benabid of France’s Joseph Fourier University, and Mahlon Robert DeLong of Emory University. Congratulations to all these exceptional scientists!


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