Hollywood Celebrates Breast Cancer Genetics Pioneer Mary-Claire King

5/15/13Follow @jamesian

[Corrected: 11 am 5/16] A sort of perfect storm of celebrity and media has hit the world of breast-cancer genetics.

Actress and international celebrity Angelina Jolie wrote yesterday in The New York Times of her own genetic status—knowing that she carried a mutation of the BRCA1 gene. Jolie chose to have a prophylactic mastectomy, surgery to remove her breasts, in order to reduce her risk of developing cancer. The story became a phenomenon trending on social media sites, such as Twitter. [Updated to note that Jolie's health risk was raised by a mutation of the BRCA1 gene, not having the gene itself.]

The woman who gave Jolie that choice—in a way—is Seattle’s own Mary-Claire King. Coincidentally, Hollywood is just now debuting nationally a movie about the 16 years that King toiled in the trenches to uncover BRCA1. The movie is called “Decoding Annie Parker.” It comes to the Seattle International Film Festival on June 6th and 8th.

There are two genes where mutations are known to change a woman’s risk of breast cancer, and they are called BRCA1 and BRCA2. Scientists believe there may be other genes yet to be discovered that might increase a woman’s risk. It is estimated that 10 percent of women have an inherited risk of breast and ovarian cancer. For that minority of women, the genetic testing pioneered by King allows them to make life decisions to lower their own risk.

Anna Satushek Kuwada, a Seattle woman who volunteers for FORCE: Facing our Risk of Cancer Empowered, is one of those women. She wrote about her own decision in 2011 to have prophylactic surgery. She works with FORCE, in hopes that she can help other women face their risk and get support for any decision they make—as she writes in her post at the Seattle chapter’s website. She helps lead a discussion group for women who know their genetic status or suspect they may have a hereditary cancer in their family.

Other women may make other choices than the surgery. Some women decide to have extra surveillance of their breasts, such as magnetic resonance imaging mammography.

King came to the University of Washington in 1994.  She has received many accolades, but I find that many people outside of the close-knit science community in Seattle have not heard of her. In March, she received the Paul Ehrlich prize in Germany for her science accomplishments.  Here is an excerpt from what the contest committee wrote about her:

“Mary-Claire King was the first to demonstrate that there is a genetic predisposition for breast cancer. This proof has permanently changed thinking about the genetics of common complex diseases,” wrote the Scientific Council of the Paul Ehrlich Foundation. “Professor King has also worked for decades in identifying the victims of human rights violations around the world. The Scientific Council continued: “She makes it clear that genetics can benefit humanity.”

Without the benefit of the Internet, in the 1970s, King began working on her theory that there could be a hereditary link in some families with breast cancer. She says it took her team 16 years of tracking families to reach the first discovery of a gene.

King is the American Cancer Society Professor at the University of Washington in Seattle and, since 1998, a member of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. She’s received 13 honorary doctorates including honorary doctorates from Harvard, Yale, Columbia and Princeton. She is a member of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the French Academy of Sciences.

My congratulations to King for her accomplishments and here’s hoping that the movie may make both King and the genetics of breast cancer better known around the world. Just for those of you who are curious—Helen Hunt plays King in the movie.

Sally James began her career as a newspaper reporter in Portland, Oregon. Over a long career in Northwest journalism, she has talked her way into autopsies, murder scenes, surgeries and medical research labs. Most recently, she’s written about big data, new designer drugs and a tavern full of Higgs Boson fans. She blogs at http://www.seattlesciencewriter.com Follow @jamesian

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  • http://twitter.com/jamesian Sally James

    Just heard from the director of Decoding Annie that Mary-Claire King and the patient – Annie Parker – are going to be at the two screenings in Seattle. Get those tickets fast, science people.

  • Amy Byer Shainman