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Women’s History Month: Nancy Wexler

By March 20, 2015Archives

Nancy Wexler was born in Washington D.C. in 1945, but she spent most of her life growing up in Topeka, Kansas. She had wonderful influences surrounding her as a child. Her father was a clinical psychologist and her mother was a geneticist. As a result, Wexler wanted to pursue her own PhD.

She began with receiving her A.B. in psychology from Radcliffe College. Later, she followed it up by receiving her PhD from the University of Michigan in clinical psychology. She decided to follow in her father’s footsteps. However, due to a medical condition amongst her mother’s family, Nancy Wexler would make her most important impact in the medical world.

Huntington’s Disease is an ugly genetic disorder that comes on without warning and produces a list of ugly symptoms such as reduced coordination, mental decline, and uncontrolled behavior. A person stricken with HD will eventually lose all muscle control and live in a demented state.

As stated, it’s a genetic disease, so it gets passed down from generation to generation. If a parent carries the gene, their children usually have a 50% chance of acquiring the same disease. Nancy Wexler’s mother watched her father pass away from this disease at the age of 15. Then, all three of her brother’s passed away from it. Therefore, when she began experiencing symptoms of the same disease she knew what was going on. She didn’t try to fight it.

Unfortunately, there was nothing anyone could do. Huntington’s Disease had been studied since the Middle Ages, but only its symptoms were logged. No one really knew what caused it. Nancy Wexler set out to discover the truth.

In 1976, she led an expedition to the country of Venezuela where there were two villages that had a high concentration of HD patients. Over the next 20 years, her team collected thousands of blood samples and logged over 18,000 different individuals in order to map out the genetic makeup which could ultimately lead to their answer. What were her results? She and her team were able to clearly identify which gene was the cause of this dreaded disease. She found what she was looking for. Wexler now had a way to test for Huntington’s Disease. This genetic disorder could no longer come on so suddenly. She allowed people to the necessary time to prepare for this disease as well as coming up with treatment for it.

Sadly, there still is no cure for Huntington’s Disease. However, through Wexler’s discovery of the gene that causes it, people can prepare. It’s an important step. It helps provide ample time in order to figure out what types of treatment will work best for the individual diagnosed. It’s also an important step in finding a cure. We now know what causes it. Now, we must figure out how to stop it.

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