The Hereditary Disease Foundation History

Dr. Milton Wexler established the Hereditary Disease Foundation (HDF) in 1968 to fund research to find treatments and cures for brain diseases such as Huntington’s disease, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, and Lou Gehrig’s.

His wife suffered from Huntington’s disease (HD) which sparked his powerful and personal mission – his two daughters each face a 50% risk of inheriting this same lethal gene.

Since 1968, we have lead research for brain diseases including the discovery first ever genetic marker for HD. HDF continues today to fund research for all brain diseases by leading scientist and clinicians.

  • 1968: The Hereditary Disease Foundation is established by Dr. Milton Wexler when his wife Leonore was diagnosed with Huntington's disease, a fatal hereditary brain disease.


  • 1979: HDF President Nancy Wexler begins what becomes a 24-year longitudinal research study on Huntington’s disease in Venezuela.


  • 1983: The HDF is the first to use DNA markers to discover the general genetic neighborhood of the Huntington’s disease gene. This breakthrough helped launch the Human Genome Project.


  • 1993: The HDF’s ‘Gene Hunters’ (over 100 scientists from around the world) collaborate for a decade to discover the Huntington’s disease gene itself. The New York Times called the discovery “the most coveted treasure” and the The Albert Lasker Public Service Award is awarded to HDF President Nancy Wexler for the accomplishment.


  • 1996: With support from the HDF, Scientific Advisory Board member Gillian Bates creates the first mouse with Huntington’s disease. These mice have cracked open our understanding of the disease.


  • 1997: Gillian Bates discovers clumps or “aggregates” in the brain and other tissues in her mouse model of HD, with support from the HDF. These clumps are similar to plaques found in Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, Lou Gehrig’s and other brain diseases. Her breakthrough leads to the discovery of clumps in human Huntington’s disease brain tissue.


  • 2004: With support from the HDF and using blood samples from the Venezuelan families, researchers discover the existence of genes that affect the onset of HD. These modifier genes can potentially help scientists better understand Huntington’s disease and find ways to delay the onset of disease.


  • 2005: HDF Scientific Advisory Board member Beverly Davidson strongly reduces the brain damage and symptoms of a mouse with Huntington’s disease using a breakthrough technique called RNA interference (RNAi). RNAi lowers the levels of the abnormal protein that causes Huntington’s disease.


  • 2006: Researchers Richard Faull and Russell Snell, with funding from the HDF, create a sheep that has the human Huntington’s gene in it. In 2010, Jenny Morton tests the sheep’s ability to perform mental tasks that involve learning and attention, and in 2014, she discovers they have alterations in their waking and sleep routines, a trait that also occurs in humans with Huntington’s disease.


  • 2007: The Benjamin Franklin Medal in Life Science is awarded to HDF President Nancy Wexler for her work in Huntington’s disease.


  • 2009: Researchers find a way to “switch” the Huntington’s gene harmless in mice. With support from the HDF, Scientific Advisory Board members Leslie Thompson, Joan Steffan and William Yang tweak just two tiny parts of the Huntington’s gene called “phosphorylation sites” to accomplish this.


  • 2012: HDF Scientific Advisory Board member Beverly Davidson is developing and perfecting a type of gene silencing (turning a gene off or turning down its activity) and gene therapy called micro RNA interference (miRNAi). It is designed to lower the amount of the Huntington protein.


  • 2016: First human clinical trials for a potential therapy in Huntington's disease begin led by a company whose SVP Frank Bennett is a member of our Scientific Advisory Board.