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Cancer gene research wins White House honors

University of Washington geneticist Mary-Claire King gets set to receive her National Medal of Science from President Barack Obama at the White House on Thursday. (Credit: National Science and Technology Medals Foundation)
University of Washington geneticist Mary-Claire King gets set to receive her National Medal of Science from President Barack Obama at the White House on Thursday. (Credit: National Science and Technology Medals Foundation)

A quarter-century after her discovery of the BRCA1 breast cancer gene, University of Washington geneticist Mary-Claire King has received the nation’s highest scientific honor – and high praise from President Barack Obama – for her achievements.

King’s status as a winner of the National Medal of Science was announced last December, but after some delays on account of weather, Obama finally put the gold medal around her neck during a White House ceremony on Thursday.

The president said “every single American should be grateful” for the career path that King, 70, chose back in the late 1960s when she was starting out in college.

“At a time when most scientists believed that cancer was caused by viruses, she relentlessly pursued her hunch that certain cancers were linked to inherited genetic mutations,” Obama said. “This self-described ‘stubborn’ scientist kept going until she proved herself right. Seventeen years of work later, Mary-Claire discovered a single gene that predisposes women to breast cancer.”

The discovery has had a huge impact on cancer diagnosis and prevention, highlighted by actress Angelina Jolie’s decision to undergo a preventive double mastectomy in 2013 because she carried the BRCA1 gene.

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By Alan Boyle

Mastermind of Cosmic Log, contributing editor at GeekWire, author of "The Case for Pluto: How a Little Planet Made a Big Difference," president of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing. Check out "About Alan Boyle" for more fun facts.

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