Landmark Achievements by Hereditary Disease Foundation Scientists and Partners

 “On the whole, I am inclined to believe that it is better, especially when one is reasonably young, to shoot for the moon.”   Milton Wexler, age 60, on creating the HDF

“On the whole, I am inclined to believe that it is better, especially when one is reasonably young, to shoot for the moon.”

Milton Wexler, age 60, on creating the HDF

1968 The Hereditary Disease Foundation (HDF) is established by Dr. Milton Wexler when his wife Leonore is diagnosed with Huntington’s disease (HD), a fatal hereditary brain disorder. This mission of the HDF is to find treatments and cures for brain diseases such as Huntington’s disease, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, and Lou Gehrig’s. 

1968 The Milton Wexler Scientific Workshops, designed to encourage scientific collaboration, are established.

1979 Nancy Wexler, current HDF President, first visits Venezuela, which has the world’s highest prevalence of HD. She launches what becomes a 23-year research study with Venezuelan HD families.

1980 With an international team of doctors, Nancy begins assembling a Venezuelan family tree that will eventually encompass more than 18,000 individuals over 10 generations.

1983 With a $1,000,000 grant from the W. M. Keck Foundation, the Gene Hunters, an international collaboration of over 100 scientists searching for the Huntington’s disease gene, is formed.

1983 The Hereditary Disease Foundation is the first to use DNA markers to discover the neighborhood of the Huntington’s disease gene. Key to this discovery is David Housman of MIT, HDF Scientific Advisory Board Member. This breakthrough helps launch the Human Genome Project.

1986 As a result of the identification of DNA markers for HD, a genetic test for the disease is developed.

1993 The Gene Hunters discover what The New York Times calls, “the most coveted treasure” – the Huntington’s disease gene itself. The Albert Lasker Public Service Award is presented to Nancy Wexler for her efforts.

1993 Francis Collins, Gene Hunter and HDF Scientific Advisory Board Member, is named Director of the Human Genome Project.

1995 Alice Wexler, HDF Board Member and Milton’s daughter, publishes “Mapping Fate: A Memoir of Family, Risk and Genetic Research.”

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1996 Gillian Bates, HDF Scientific Advisory Board Member, creates the very first mouse with Huntington’s disease.

1997 Gillian Bates’ creation of the HD mouse leads to the discovery of clumps or “aggregates” of abnormal HD protein in the brain and other tissue in mice. This breakthrough leads to the discovery of the same clumps in human HD brain tissue.

1999 Casa Hogar, a clinic and nursing home for HD patients in Venezuela, opens with support from HDF and others.

2000 Ai Yamamoto, HDF Scientific Advisory Board Member, creates a mouse model of HD with a “switch” that, when flipped, allows the mouse to cure itself.

2000 Leslie Thompson and Lawrence Marsh, HDF Scientific Advisory Board Members, put the HD gene into a fruit fly.

2002 H. Robert Horvitz, HDF Scientific Advisory Board Member, wins the Nobel Prize for discovering cell death genes.

2002 Beverly Davidson, HDF Scientific Advisory Board Member, cures a mouse with Huntington’s disease using a breakthrough technique called RNA interference (RNAi).

  NIH Director Francis Collins performing at HDF 50th Anniversary

NIH Director Francis Collins performing at HDF 50th Anniversary

2003 The Human Genome Project is completed in 13 years at the cost of about $2.7 billion.

2004 Using tissue samples from the Venezuelan families, HDF-funded scientists discover the existence of modifier genes.

2006 Researchers Richard Faull and Russell Snell create a sheep that contains the human HD gene.

2008 The FDA approves tetrabenazine, the first medication in the U.S. for the treatment of abnormal movements associated with HD.

2009 HDF Scientific Advisory Board Members Leslie Thompson, Joan Steffan and William Yang find a way to switch off the Huntington’s gene in mice, which cures the mice.

2010 Founding HDF Board members Berta and Frank Gehry and their family establish the Leslie Gehry Brenner Prize for Innovation in Science with a gift of $1,000,000.

2013 HDF launches a pilot study to search for “modifying genes” with whole genome sequencing of DNA from Venezuelan HD families. Advances in technology drastically reduced the cost of sequencing.

2014 HDF is awarded a $1,000,000 grant from the W. M. Keck Foundation to identify the genes that influence the age of onset of HD.

2015 Ionis Pharmaceuticals, in collaboration with Roche, initiates the first human clinical trial designed to directly shut down production of the HD protein.

2016 The W. M. Keck Foundation-funded project leads to the discovery of three genes that significantly impact the age of onset of HD. Two of these genes cause HD to start early and one gene makes HD start much later in life.

  Pope Francis and Nancy Wexler

Pope Francis and Nancy Wexler

2016 Gene-editing (CRISPR) as a possible treatment for HD is highlighted at HDF’s Biennial Conference.

2017 HDF participates in an historic audience with Pope Francis and HD families to bring international attention to the suffering of people affected by HD worldwide.

2018 Roche is poised to begin a Phase 3 clinical trial, due to the great promise of early trials. HDF’s Biennial Conference highlights the advancement of these trials.