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Mary-Claire King and President Obama
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.

The next year, King received a Lasker-Koshland Special Achievement Award for her work on cancer genetics, and she took the occasion to call for every woman to undergo genetic screening for the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes at around age 30. Today, rapid scientific advances have brought that goal within closer reach.

“A couple of years ago, it cost a woman $4,000 to have only BRCA1 and BRCA2 sequenced,” King said in a UW news release. “Now all 20 known breast cancer genes can be sequenced for this woman for $250.”

In addition to her cancer research, King is known for her work on chimpanzee and human evolution, and her efforts to trace the “lost children of Argentina” who were kidnapped as infants by that country’s military regime in the 1970s.

King said that Thursday’s White House ceremony served as a “wonderful way to celebrate science and show the next generation that this is a fascinating and worthwhile way to spend one’s life.”

In addition to King, eight other researchers – including University of Oregon chemist Geraldine Richmond – received the National Medal of Science for 2015. Eight more received the National Medal of Technology and Innovation. Laureates are selected by independent committees organized by the National Science Foundation and the Department of Commerce.

Hat tip to The Seattle Times’ JoNel Aleccia.

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