UW Today

This is an archived article.

June 24, 2004

Mary-Claire King to receive Gruber Genetics Prize

Dr. Mary-Claire King, UW professor of genome sciences and medicine, will receive a major international genetics prize this fall. She is also the American Cancer Society professor at the UW.

King, who proved the existence of the first gene for hereditary breast cancer and has long promoted the application of genetics to benefit humanity, has been selected by an international panel of experts to receive the 2004 Genetics Prize of the Peter Gruber Foundation. The Foundation annually presents its gold medal and a $200,000 unrestricted cash award to an outstanding scientist who has contributed to fundamental advances in the field of genetics. This year’s prize will be presented on Oct. 27 at the meeting of the American Society of Human Genetics in Toronto, Canada.

The official citation reads: “By genetically locating a gene predisposing to breast cancer, Dr. King established a new paradigm for analyzing genetic contributions to common human diseases. She pioneered the use of DNA testing in human rights by identifying the orphaned children of political dissidents killed during the dark days of Argentinean dictatorship. Her intellectual contributions and her personal courage are models for how both the theory and methods of genetics may be applied to benefit humanity.”

Born in a suburb of Chicago in 1946, King graduated from Minnesota’s Carleton College with a B.A. in mathematics, and received her Ph.D. in genetics from the University of California, Berkeley in 1973. She was a professor of both genetics and epidemiology at UC-Berkeley from 1976 until moving in 1995 to the UW, where her laboratory focuses on the identification and characterization of genes responsible for complex, common human conditions.

King’s groundbreaking insights led to the discovery that mutations in a single gene, BRCA1, cause breast cancer in many high-risk families, thereby creating a revolution in human genetics. The discovery permanently changed thinking about the genetics of common diseases and has been emulated by researchers studying many other serious diseases including Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and prostate cancer.

King also has a long involvement in promoting the human rights applications of genetics. As a young scientist she was a teacher and researcher in Chile. Her experiences in South America inspired her ongoing project to assist the “abuelas,” the grandmothers of the children of those killed during Argentina’s “dirty war” in the 1970s and early 1980s. These parents of “the disappeared” seek to be reunited with the children of their lost sons and daughters, and a genetic test that matches maternally inherited mitochondrial DNA sequences is often the only way to confirm that link. In addition, King oversees a collaboration between Israeli and Palestinian scientists to identify genes for deafness.

“Genetics passes on to us important information about our inheritance,” said Peter Gruber, chairman of the Peter Gruber Foundation. “We are extremely pleased to honor the work of Dr. Mary-Claire King. She is an innovative researcher and a powerful advocate for the synergy of science and social action.”

The Genetics Prize was established in 2001. Previous winners are Dr. Rudolf Jaenish (2001), a pioneer in using mice to study and develop treatments for human diseases, Dr. H. Robert Horvitz (2002), the recent Nobel laureate who led the way in discovering how specific genes cause the programmed death of cells, and Dr. David Botstein (2003), an innovator in the use of genetics to understand biological functions.

The Peter Gruber Foundation was founded in 1993 and established a record of charitable giving principally in the U.S. Virgin Islands, where it is located. In recent years the Foundation has expanded its focus to a series of international awards recognizing discoveries and achievements that produce “fundamental shifts in human knowledge and culture.” In addition to the Genetics Prize, the Foundation presents awards in cosmology, neuroscience, justice and women’s rights. Further information is available at http://www.petergruberfoundation.org.