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UW Researcher, Mother Of The 'Breast Cancer Gene,' Wins Prestigious Award

University of Washington
UW geneticist Mary-Claire King won the Lasker Award for her wide-ranging work applying genetics to complex problems.

A researcher in genetics at the University of Washington has won a prominent award, sometimes referred to as the American version of the Nobel Prize, in part for a key contribution to understanding breast cancer.

Mary-Claire King knew that breast cancer runs in some families, but it wasn’t clear why. In the 1970s and '80s, genetic research was much more cumbersome and expensive than it is today, and the very idea that a gene could trigger a complex disease like cancer was controversial.

Credit University of Washington
University of Washington

Through painstaking statistics work, King figured out the women who inherit breast cancer tended to be young and have other things in common. Eventually, she developed a roadmap to what would be called the breast cancer gene: BRCA1.

King’s department head at UW, Robert Waterston, said her work has helped numerous women make choices about their health they never could have otherwise.

“So women have been able to get this knowledge and they have been able to prevent themselves from ever getting breast cancer, even though they may be predisposed to it,” Waterston said.

King has also applied her knowledge of genetics on behalf of human rights causes. She helped more than 100 children displaced by war in Argentina reunite with their families. She’s used a similar approach to identify the remains of missing soldiers and victims in mass graves.

Waterston says her wide-ranging accomplishments are being justly recognized with the award from the Albert and Mary Lasker Foundation.

“All those things combine to make her just the exact right choice for the award. I mean, I can’t think of anybody who has done more in so many ways than Mary-Claire,” he said.

King is one of five scientists this year to receive a Lasker Award. Hers is the Special Achievement Award, honored “bold, imaginative, and diverse contributions to medical science and human rights.” It will be presented on Sept. 19 in New York.

Gabriel Spitzer is a former KNKX reporter, producer and host who covered science and health and worked on the show Sound Effect.