MAKERS Profile

Nancy Wexler

Neuropsychologist & President, Hereditary Disease Foundation

In this video

Nancy Wexler, PhD is a neuropsychologist who's devoted her life's work to finding a cure for the fatal hereditary disorder Huntington's Disease (HD). Although a cure has not been found for HD, Wexler and a team of "gene hunters" made the breakthrough discovery of locating the Huntington gene and dramatically changed how science is approached. Wexler herself has a one in two chance of having the disease.
Nancy Wexler, PhD is a neuropsychologist who's devoted her life's work to finding a cure for the fatal hereditary disorder Huntington's Disease. She is best known for her major contribution in discovering the location of the gene that causes the disease. Today, Wexler serves as president of the Hereditary Disease Foundation, a clinic founded by her father, Milton Wexler, M.D., and as the Higgins Professor of Neuropsychology at Columbia University.   Wexler's 20-year study of the world's largest family with Huntington's disease, in Lake Maracaibo, Venezuela, developed a pedigree of over 18,000 individuals and collected over 4,000 blood samples which lead to the identification of the Huntington's disease gene at the tip of human chromosome 4. Wexler herself has a one in two chance of having the disease. Her mother, grandfather and three uncles all passed away from Huntington's.   Wexler received an A.B. from Radcliffe in 1967 and a Ph.D. in clinical psychology from the University of Michigan in 1974. She currently holds or has held numerous public policy positions, including Chair of the Joint NIH/DOE Ethical, Legal and Social Issues Working Group of the National Center for Human Genome Research, Chair of the Human Genome Organization (HUGO) and Member of the Institute of Medicine. Wexler has served as a member of the board of directors of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and on the Advisory Committee on Research on Women's Health, NIH. She has received numerous honors and awards including the 1993 Lasker Award for Public Service.

More From Nancy

The Gene Hunters
A group of about 100 people, including Nancy Wexler, called themselves the "Gene Hunters" and endeavored to "crawl up the chromosome" together through workshops and collaborative research. 

Consequences of Knowing Our DNA
Neuropsychologist and President of the Hereditary Disease Foundation, Nancy Wexler contemplates both the positive and negative consequences of knowing the composition of our DNA.

All 3 Brothers Diagnosed
Gene hunter Nancy Wexler 's grandfather died of Huntington's Chorea. At the time, it was believe to be a male-only hereditary disease and all three of her uncles were diagnosed with Huntington's on the same day.

No Treatment For Huntington's
As there remains no treatment for Huntington's Disease, neuropsychologist Nancy Wexler has decided that she doesn't need to know whether or not she has the gene for the disease.

A Worldwide Genetic Disease
Uncommon for a genetic disease, Nancy Wexler discovered that Huntington's Disease was in the same gene location across the globe. That would also mean that the cure can eventually be global as well.

Mom and Betty Friedan
President of the Hereditary Disease Foundation, Nancy Wexler recalls how her mother, suffering from Huntington's Disease, was able to rediscover herself through Betty Friedan's feminist words as she dealt with the pain and symptoms of the disease.

Road Map of Genes
After discovering the DNA marker in 1983, Nancy Wexler and her team realized you could find a gene using the marker. The results changed how science was approached and led to the foundation of the Human Genome Project.

Huntington's in Venezuela
Neuropsychologist Nancy Wexler on the history of the clinic for Huntington's Disease she helped create in a remote part of Venezuela where the disease is prevalent.

My First Job
Gene hunter Nancy Wexler grew up seeing her father work passionately with schizophrenia patients and she wanted to follow his in footsteps.

Women in Science
Neuropsychologist and President of the Hereditary Disease Foundation, Nancy Wexler, explains the benefits of being a woman in science.