Winner of Lasker Award Calls for Universal Cancer Screening

On Monday morning the Albert and Mary Lasker Foundation Awards were announced according to a New York Times article. One of the winners of these awards used her spotlight in a very constructive way- she called for widening the use of genetic screening for breast and ovarian cancer.

Mary-Claire King, 68, Departments of Medicine and Genome Sciences, University of Washington, Seattle, is one of the five scientists being honored. She won the special achievement award for her scientific and human rights accomplishments. Dr. King discovered the BRCA1 gene that when mutated can increase the vulnerability to breast cancer.

King proposed that screening should be done for all American women 30 and over to test for cancer causing genetic mutations regardless of their race or ethnic background. This is very different from the past where screening was done for those women who had already had a diagnosis or had a clear family history of breast or ovarian cancer.

“We recommend that every woman in America of any race or ancestry be offered this opportunity when she’s in the midst of childbearing or beginning childbearing,” Dr. King said in an 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. But women who do learn they have a mutation that’s comparable to Angelina Jolie’s and confers very high risk can begin to think about what that means and be referred to a high-risk clinic,” she said.

Typically, the recommendation is to have ovaries removed by age 40 because ovarian cancer difficult to diagnose early. It also might reduce the change of breast cancer, as well. The proposal has been referred to as provocative, and that more evidence needed to be shown that it would be necessary for otherwise healthy women to be screened.

Even Michael Watson, the executive director of the American College of Medical Genetics (ACMG), claimed that medicine was already moving toward screening healthy patients although there are “still gaps in our system to be able to do that effectively.”

King estimated that the first round of universal screening would identify 250,000-400,000 American women with harmful mutations. When some critics claimed that women were not ready for this, King argued: “Why should women be protected from information that will empower them and allow them to control their lives? We don’t need that kind of protection.”

Data from 1,500 families was analyzed where women received a new diagnosis of breast cancer at 55 or younger. 4% of the families carried a single gene that would predispose both women and men to breast cancer, even if there were no influential environmental exposures or other risk factors.

In order to learn more about Kings findings and the other winners, check out this article that was in JAMA (The Journal of the American Medical Association).

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