Health Report: DNA testing for cancer genes could save lives in Alaska

FAIRBANKS, Alaska The geneticist who discovered a breast cancer causing gene spoke at the Fairbanks Greater Chamber of Commerce about her hopes for the state.

Mary-Claire King, the geneticist who discovered a breast cancer causing gene spoke at the Fairbanks Greater Chamber of Commerce about her hopes for the state.

Tuesday's speaker at the Fairbanks Greater Chamber of Commerce, geneticist Mary-Claire King of the University of Washington, is someone who helped expand our understanding of the illness. Cancer is a wide spread disease that remains a mystery in many ways.

At the time of Dr. King's research, it was unclear what all the different causes of cancer could be and how it tied into genetics. It was her research that helped prove cancer can be genetic. She is accredited with discovering the BCRA – 1 gene that increases a woman’s chance of developing both breast and ovarian Cancer. A second gene known as BCRA – 2 was discovered after Dr. King’s work on gene 1. Dr. King says both genes are rare, but she still encourages DNA testing, due to the dramatic increase of cancer individuals with mutations on these genes face. BRCA-1 increases a woman's chance of breast cancer by 80% and ovarian cancer by 50%. A BCRA-2 mutation increases a woman's chance of breast cancer by 70 to 75% and ovarian cancer by roughly 30%.

She also encourages men to get DNA testing for these genes. According to her, the there was a recent study that suggest men with these genes have a slightly higher chance of developing prostate cancer.

Dr. King has received many accolades for linking cancer to genetics, including the National Medal of Science. She is in Alaska as part of a new partnership with Fairbanks Memorial Hospital.

“What we’re doing now at FMH is setting up a program so that anyone who works at FMH, can be sequenced for these genes,” said Dr. King.

She spoke on what she hopes her search will lead to.

“I’m hoping that we can identify women and men who are very high risks of cancer," began Dr. King; "and that we can develop ways of lowering their risk that are less invasive than surgeries that women now undertake.”

Dr. King says her ultimate goal for the Alaska is for it to become the first state to supply genetic testing to all women by the age of 30 for these cancer causing genes.