Geneticist Who Identified Breast, Ovarian Cancer Genes At The Center of Genetic Testing Debate

Geneticist Who Identified Breast, Ovarian Cancer Genes At The Center of Genetic Testing Debate

laskerMary-Claire King, the scientist who identified breast cancer genes and who also co-developed a way to screen for all genes that predispose women to breast and ovarian cancer, was awarded the 2014 Lasker-Koshland Special Achievement Award in Medical Science for her leadership and citizenship in biomedical science.

King, who is a professor of medicine in the University of Washington, Division of Medical Genetics and of Genome Sciences, has been taking her scientific work out of the lab and is advocating for genetic tests for all women for the detection of mutations in BRAC 1 and BRAC 2 genes that could lead to breast or ovarian cancer.

This public position in favor of genetic tests for all women raised doubts and questions among some of her peers, and led to a recent debate on whether these tests would be more beneficial than harmful.

In an article by Rob Stein to the NPR, (“Researcher Urges Wider Genetic Screening For Breast Cancer“) the author notes that some scientists still question the need and benefit for all women to take these exams.

One of the questions raised is related to the lack of absolute certainty in these results. According to the critics of this “all women should be tested” position, the existence of the mutation in a woman doesn’t guarantee she will suffer from cancer. On the other hand, positive tests for cancer genes may lead women to go through serious preemptive surgeries, again without positive certainty they will develop cancer.

Current statistics show that 5 to 10 percent of breast cancer is caused by BRCA mutations, according to the National Cancer Institute.

In addition, there are several factors, such as breastfeeding and a healthy lifestyle that can change the behavior of those mutations.

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For these scientists, at least for now, regular exams and genetic tests for women with a familial background of breast or ovarian cancer may be another solution.

King, quoted in Rob Stein’s article, answered to this suggestion using her latest research findings to lobby for genetic tests for all women. In a recent study, King and her team identified more than 400 women with gene mutations, but no family history. The team observed, according to the laureate, that “the women turned out to have the same high risks of developing either breast or ovarian cancer that we see among those who are identified by virtue of their family history.”

King’s public positions don’t limit genetic tests on BRAC1 and BRAC2 genes. According to the information released on the university’s webpage, King has been a leading voice in favor of genetics’ role in the field of human rights and its power to stop abuse.

During the 1980s, King helped families in Argentina find their children, taken during the military regime, through mitochondrial DNA sequencing.

Her efforts to use science in favor of human rights and the impact on “families around the world” are some of the reasons mentioned by University of Washington for the award of the 2014 Lasker-Koshland Special Achievement Award in Medical Science.