Breast cancer, brain stimulation win Lasker awards

WASHINGTON (AFP) - A French scientist credited with pioneering deep-brain stimulation to help Parkinson's disease patients and an American who located a key breast cancer mutation were awarded top science prizes Monday.

The annual Lasker awards are among the highest honours in the field of science, and are often called the "American Nobels".

The Lasker-DeBakey Clinical Medical Research Award went to Alim Louis Benabid of the Academy of Sciences in France and Mahlon DeLong of Emory University for developing deep-brain stimulation techniques that restore function in patients with Parkinson's disease.

"The work of DeLong and Benabid has enhanced the lives of more than 100,000 patients worldwide who have undergone the procedure," said the Lasker Foundation. "It has spurred further investigations into the use of electrical stimulation that is already helping others with neurological and psychiatric diseases."

American scientist Mary-Claire King was given the Lasker-Koshland Special Achievement Award in Medical Science for her lifetime of work which included discovering the location of the BRCA1 gene for breast cancer.

She used the occasion to call for wider genetic testing of women, writing in the Journal of the American Medical Association that more genetic testing should be done to catch inherited cancers before it is too late.

"Based on our 20 years' experience working with families with cancer-predisposing mutations in BRCA1 and BRCA2, it is time to offer genetic screening of these genes to every woman, at about age 30, in the course of routine medical care," she wrote.

"To identify a woman as a carrier only after she develops cancer is a failure of cancer prevention," said King, a professor of genome sciences at the University of Washington School of Medicine in Seattle.

Actress Angelina Jolie raised attention to the issue of inherited gene flaws when she announced she had tested positive for the mutations and had undergone a preventive double mastectomy last year.

Between one in 300 to one in 500 women in the United States is believed to carry what King described in her article as an "actionable mutation in BRCA1 and BRCA2".

That means between "250,000 and 415,000 adult women for whom breast and ovarian cancer is both highly likely and potentially preventable," she said.

Breast cancer affects about 12 per cent of women overall, but among women who inherit an abnormal version of BRCA1 or BRCA2, 45-65 per cent will develop cancer by age 70.

Currently, the US Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) supports BRCA1 and BRCA2 testing based on family history and ancestry, but not for the entire female population.

King was honoured with the award for "bold, imaginative, and diverse contributions to medical science and human rights," the Lasker website said. She was also recognized for using DNA technology to help reunite missing children in Argentina with their mothers and grandmothers by developing a forensics approach relying on mitochondrial DNA, which passes from mother to child.

"King helped prove genetic relationships and thus facilitated the reunion of more than 100 of the children with their families," the Lasker Foundation said.

Other winners included Kazutoshi Mori of Kyoto University and Peter Walter of the University of California, San Francisco. They received the Albert Lasker Basic Medical Research Award for discoveries about how cells have an internal quality control system for correcting harmful, misfolded proteins.

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