5 reasons we're glad Mary-Claire King is on the earth
She's a pioneering geneticist who's made huge breakthroughs in breast cancer. Where would we be without her?
Almost 30 years ago, Mary-Claire King was a professor at the University of California-Berkeley. There, she discovered that a gene, later known as BRCA1, was responsible for a large number of breast cancer cases. It told her – and soon, millions of others – that as many as 10% of breast cancers may be hereditary.
It was a massive breakthrough that changed the way patients were diagnosed and treated. It also allowed patients to make informed choices based on whether they have the gene. And it cemented King, who's now on the faculty at the University of Washington, as a major force in human genetics and its influences on diseases. She even received the National Medal of Science from President Obama in 2016 and the prestigious Dan David Prize from Tel Aviv University in Israel this month.
It's for that reason, and for the others we list below, that we're grateful for her contributions, human rights work and pioneering discoveries in her field of study.
She used genetics to find missing children and bring them home.
When you can use science to save lives and heal families, you know you've really made your mark. King began working with a human rights group called Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo (Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo) in Argentina in 1984. She used dental genetics to identify 59 children who had been separated from their families due to political strife.
Now, the technique of using dental genetics to identify missing people is widely used, partly thanks to King's pioneering work in Argentina.
She helped identify genetic causes of hearing loss.
The advancements in genetics as related to hearing loss were largely due to King's work. (Photo: Alexander Raths / Shutterstock)
King and her colleagues, including Israeli geneticist Karen Avraham, successfully cloned the first deafness-related gene in 1999, leading to better understanding of why some populations have higher numbers of hearing-impaired people.
Her BRCA1 research has led to widespread use of genetic cancer screening.
King's discovery was revolutionary for many reasons, but the biggest was that it confirmed a connection between genetics and common diseases like breast and ovarian cancer. It's allowed women to choose to go preventative treatments like mastectomies to lower their risk of cancer.
And it's why she was recently awarded the Dan David Prize, a $1 million award given for scientific, technological and cultural accomplishments. The Dan David Foundation said it chose King for the prize this year because she "changed the understanding of hereditary cancer predisposition."
For her part, King said she's "delighted and honored, and a little stunned" to receive the award. "I find it easier to understand why the prize was awarded to me if I think of the award as more truly recognizing human genetics in Israel," King told From The Grapevine. "I've worked closely with Israeli geneticists for more than 20 years."
She demonstrated that humans and chimpanzees are 99% genetically identical.
While still working at Berkeley, the Illinois-born scientist teamed up with Allan Wilson, a molecular biology professor, to demonstrate that chimpanzees and humans shared 99 percent of their DNA. This is one of the biggest pieces of evidence demonstrating that chimpanzees and humans evolved from a common ancestor.
She made huge strides in the study of schizophrenia.
King was one of the first scientists to connect mental illnesses to specific gene mutations. (Photo: Bangkokhappiness / Shutterstock)
Before King's research, not much was known about the genetic component of mental illnesses like schizophrenia. The disorder – marked by hallucinations, delusions, the feeling of losing touch with reality and psychotic behaviors – tends to run in families, but scientists haven't had much success finding a genetic explanation. That is until 2008, when King and her colleagues found that people with the disorder tend to have a specific mutation in parts of their genetic code. Like her work with the breast cancer gene, her research on schizophrenia has transformed the understanding of complex disease inheritance.
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