Huntington’s Researcher Wins Inaugural Hermann J. Muller Award from Indiana University Bloomington

Ana de Barros, PhD avatar

by Ana de Barros, PhD |

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A geneticist and neuropsychologist whose research led to the identification of the gene involved in Huntington’s disease (HD) has been named the inaugural recipient of the Hermann J. Muller Award for Contributions to Our Understanding of Genes and Society, a new honor by Indiana University Bloomington.

Nancy Wexler (Photo courtesy of the Hereditary Disease Foundation)

Nancy Wexler (Photo courtesy of the Hereditary Disease Foundation)

Nancy Wexler, the president of the Hereditary Disease Foundation and the Higgins Professor of Neuropsychology at Columbia University, will also deliver the Hermann J. Muller lecture during the award ceremony on April 25 at the university. The lecture, titled “Mendel, Muller, Morgan, Mom and Me: An ever-expanding voyage of discovery,” will cover her research in fruit flies, which proved that genes are located in specific homes on chromosomes, and that their inheritance is governed by a series of key principles first articulated by the Austrian scientist Gregor Mendel in 1866.

Renowned for her work in the discovery of the HD gene’s location, Dr. Wexler has also led research resulting in the discovery of genes involved in familial Alzheimer’s disease (AD), kidney cancer, two types of neurofibromatosis, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), and dwarfism.

Dr. Wexler began working on HD in 1979, when she took her research team to Venezuela to gather genetic information from the world’s largest family with HD — today numbering more than 18,000 members over 10 generations. This trip was the beginning of a 24-year journey into the study of the genetic origins of Huntington’s, and Wexler said her father was a major inspiration. Wexler’s father, psychologist Milton Wexler, founded the Hereditary Disease Foundation to honor his wife, who died of Huntington’s.

She has also served on advisory committees for the National Institutes of Health, Department of Energy, and the Human Genome Organization, and provided guidance to the Human Genome Project, among others projects. Her honors include the 2007 Benjamin Franklin Medal in Life Sciences and the 1993 Albert Lasker Public Service Award.

Hermann J. Muller won the 1946 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine while at Indiana University Bloomington, where he was a faculty member from 1945 to 1964. His work considerably expanded scientific understanding into the structure of genes, how they work and how they are modified by mutation.

“Hermann Muller’s massive contributions to the field of genetics and its societal impact continue to influence much of today’s work in this field,” Michael Lynch, chair of the Hermann J. Muller Award Committee and a professor of Biology at Indiana, said in a press release. “It’s fitting that our inaugural Muller awardee has maintained a long-term research program linking basic genetic analyses to fundamental issues concerning hereditary diseases in humans.”

Professor Muller’s biographer, Elof Axel Carlson, will also speak briefly about Muller’s life at the event. Carlson is a former graduate student of Muller’s, and currently a visiting scholar at the university. The event runs from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m., Room 122 in the Chemistry Building, and is open to the public.