Huntington’s Disease Pioneer to Deliver Inaugural Hermann J. Muller Award lecture at IU

A leading geneticist and neuropsychologist whose research led to the identification of the Huntington’s disease gene will speak at Indiana University Bloomington as the inaugural recipient of the Hermann J. Muller Award for Contributions to Our Understanding of Genes and Society.

Nancy Wexler, president of the Hereditary Disease Foundation and Higgins Professor of Neuropsychology in the Departments of Neurology and Psychiatry at Columbia University, will deliver the lecture during the award ceremony from 4 to 6 p.m. April 25 in the Chemistry Building, Room 122, 800 E. Kirkwood Ave. The event is open to the public.

The award is named in honor ofHermann J. Muller, who won the 1946 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine while serving on the IU faculty from 1945 to 1964. Regarded as one of history’s greatest geneticists, Muller greatly expanded understanding on the structure of genes, how they work and how they are modified by mutation. He was also interested in the role of genetics in society.

“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,” said Michael Lynch, IU Distinguished Professor of Biology and chair of the Hermann J. Muller Award committee. “His two decades at IU Bloomington, along with that of several other key colleagues, marked the golden age of genetics on this campus, which continues to influence much of the biology department’s research and international reputation in this area.

“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.”

A highly recognized expert in her field, Wexler is internationally known for her role in the discovery of the location of the gene that causes Huntington’s disease. Her research has also led to the discovery of the genes responsible for familial Alzheimer’s disease, kidney cancer, two types of neurofibromatosis, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis and dwarfism.

Wexler’s work on Huntington’s disease intensified in 1979 when she led a research team to Venezuela to collect genetic information from the world’s largest family with Huntington’s disease — now numbering over 18,000 family members over 10 generations — which began a 24-year odyssey into the study of the genetic origins of the disease. Her efforts were inspired in part by her father, Hereditary Disease Foundation founder and psychologist Milton Wexler, and her mother, who had a master’s degree in biology. Her mother died from Huntington’s disease.

In addition to her work on genetic disease, Wexler provides leadership to numerous governmental groups on creating guidelines to handle the extremely sensitive information yielded by genetic testing. She is a member of the Advisory Group for Human Gene Editing, which counsels the presidents of the National Academy of Sciences and National Academy of Medicine, and the National Academy of Medicine’s Evidence Base for Genetic Testing Committee.

She has served on advisory committees for the National Institutes of Health, Department of Energy and Human Genome Organization. She has also served as chair of the NIH-DOE Ethical, Legal and Social Implications working group of the National Center for Human Genome Research and of the Human Genome Organization, providing guidance to the Human Genome Project. Her numerous honors and awards include the 2007 Benjamin Franklin Medal in Life Science and 1993 Albert Lasker Public Service Award.

The title of Wexler’s lecture is “Mendel, Muller, Morgan, Mom and Me: An ever-expanding voyage of discovery.” It will discuss in part Muller’s research in fruit flies at IU, which proved that genes reside in specific homes on chromosomes and that their inheritance is governed by a series of key principles first described by Austrian scientist Gregor Mendel in 1866.

Today, the IU Department of Biology plays a major role in the study of fruit flies through resources such as the Drosophila Stock Center, which provides thousands of genetically modified flies to research laboratories around the world, and FlyBase, a major database on drosophila genetics in molecular biology.

Muller’s biographer, Elof Axel Carlson, will also present a brief overview of Muller’s life at the event. A former graduate student of Muller’s at IU, Carlson spent the majority of his career at the Stony Brook University, where he achieved the rank of Distinguished Teaching Professor of Biochemistry and Cell Biology. He is currently a visiting scholar at the IU Institute for Advanced Study.

Muller’s daughter, Helen Muller, a professor emeritus at the University of New Mexico, will also attend.

The Muller award and lecture series are intended to recognize luminary international geneticists whose discoveries, like Muller’s, have made or are making a significant impact on the field of genetics and society. Awardees are selected by a committee of faculty at IU.