Lasker winner calls for more genetic testing for cancer

Sept. 19, 2014

Mary-Claire King, PhD, a recent winner of an Albert and Mary Lasker Foundation award, is calling for a controversial change in the use of genetic screening for breast and ovarian cancer.

King, 68, of the University of Washington in Seattle, is well-known for her discovery of BRCA1. In a separate area of her research, she also developed and used DNA strategies to reunite missing persons with their families of origin. One of five scientists honored by the Lasker Foundation earlier this month, King received the Special Achievement Award for “bold, imaginative” scientific and human rights accomplishments.

Her proposal earlier this week, summarized in an article for JAMA that she co-authored with Ephrat Levy-Lahad, MD, and; Amnon Lahad, MD, MPH, both of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem,, appeals for screening all American woman 30 or older for cancer-causing genetic mutations. King estimates that universal screening would identify 250,000 to 400,000 women in the United States with harmful mutations in the BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene. Identifying women with such mutations provides them with the opportunity to undergo risk-reducing surgery to remove their breasts and/or ovaries.

This proposal, if adopted, would be a radical departure from current guidelines, which discourage screening for these mutations unless a woman already has a diagnosis of cancer or has a family history of breast and ovarian cancer.

“We recommend that every woman in America be offered this opportunity when she’s in the midst of childbearing or beginning childbearing,” Dr. King says in a New York Times interview. “You only need to be tested once, and the vast majority of women will not have a mutation and can go about their life. The actual cost is minimal.” Read the article.

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