Science transcends Mideast turmoil with geneticist's help


April 30, 2018

Science transcends Mideast turmoil with geneticist's help

Mary-Claire King will be honored May 6 in Tel Aviv for helping to "usher in new era in medicine." 


[The Dan David Prize award ceremony will be live-streamed from Israel at 10 a.m. PDT, Sunday, May 6, 2018. (update May 8: you can watch her receive the award at this YouTube link) ]

One summer morning in 1995, Mary-Claire King held the key to her new lab in a new building wing at the University of Washington School of Medicine.

She hadn’t seen inside but knew what awaited: stacks of boxes of supplies from the University of California lab she had left behind in venturing north to be the American Cancer Society professor of medicine and genetics.

As King turned the key, she was approached by Dr. Ephrat Levy-Lahad, a medical genetics fellow who, in the moment, saw an opportunity.

“She said, ‘I hope to set up sequencing for BRCA1 in Jerusalem.’ And I said, ‘That’s great. I’ll be happy to help you.’” King recalled.

Levy-Lahad had chosen the right person to ask. King’s discovery of BRCA1, the first gene linked to breast cancer, and her other research had changed how scientists consider the connections between genetics and disease.

Mary-Claire King and Ephrat Levy-Lahad. Photo by Judy Siegel-Itzkovich, The Jerusalem Post

“I told her, ‘It will be awhile before I get everything organized here, and then I’ll send you some primers,’” King continued.

“And she smiled, looked at me, put down her pocketbook, and said: “No problem, I’ll help.”

King started to laugh before the punchline: “And she began opening all my boxes!”

For more than two decades since, King has worked with Levy-Lahad other colleagues in Israel and Palestine. Although King’s career has earned her countless awards and honors, she said the 2018 Dan David Prize, which she will receive this week at Tel Aviv University, is special.

“It is close to my heart,' King said, "because it reflects both the power and international nature of science. Science is highly respected in Israel and findings of Israeli science reach around the world. Although this award recognizes my work independent of my origin, the strength of my work is due very largely to my partnership with Israeli and Palestinian colleagues.”

The late Dan David was an international businessman and philanthropist. The prize differs from others inasmuch as its categories of honor change from year to year. Recipients include former U.S. Vice President Al Gore; cellist Yo-Yo Ma; co-discoverer of the AIDS virus Dr. Robert Gallo; and novelist Margaret Atwood. In 2002, Robert Waterston, professor and chair of genome sciences at the UW School of Medicine, was recognized for his seminal contributions to the human genome project.

King is being honored, with others, for contributions to personalized medicine.

"Professor Mary-Claire King and the other laureates of this year’s Future Category are helping usher in a new era of medicine and healthcare in which new inroads are being made in the fight against once incurable diseases by better understanding the underlying genetic mechanisms connected to illnesses and tailoring treatments to each individual patient,” wrote Ariel David, Dan David’s son and a director of the Dan David Foundation.

“I Have Been Visiting Her Ever Since”

That morning in 1995, Levy-Lahad had wanted to help unpack boxes because she was leaving the next day for Israel," King recalled, “As you might imagine, within a short time she had what she needed.  She said, ‘Come visit me.’ And I have been visiting her ever since.”

Levy-Lahad went on to create and direct the Medical Genetics Institute at Shaare Zedek Medical Center in Jerusalem. She and King have collaborated in studying the genetics of breast and ovarian cancer and on searching for genes underlying severe pediatric conditions. Their partner throughout has been Moien Kanaan, a professor at Bethlehem University in Palestine.

For the past 20 years, King has also worked with  Karen Avraham , a professor atTel Aviv University. King, Avraham and Kanaan have discovered and characterized genes responsible for inherited hearing loss among  Palestinian and Israeli children.

“Mary-Claire King has become part of our scientific community,” Avraham said. “Mary-Claire King is a remarkable, compassionate human being and an inspiration for women everywhere. But she is very humble and very generous with her time. When she enters a room of scientists in Israel, everyone knows her. She is never a stranger.”

“Diseases don’t care about politics or wars”

King is proud of the partnership for graduate training between Tel Aviv University and Bethlehem University. This program has so far enabled five Palestinian students to receive their Ph.D.'s with guidance from both Israel and Palestinian mentors.

It has not always easy. During one period of armed conflict, then-student Hashem Shahin, who also studies the genetics of hearing loss, could not enter Israel to study. So he came to Seattle and worked with King and her colleagues. Shahin is now associate professor of genetics at Bethlehem University.

“The Bethlehem-Tel Aviv program and all the science it has generated is a success because everyone involved is devoted to the work,” King said. “Of course we are all loyal to our homelands. We are also loyal to science. We understand that working together transcends politics. It’s possible to do beautiful useful science together, even between countries that are in conflict.”

“We all work together extremely well,” Avraham says. “Diseases don’t care about politics or wars. Science crosses borders.”