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Nancy Wexler

Nancy Wexler

Psychologist Nancy Wexler (born 1945) researched Huntington's disease and developed a presymptomatic test for the condition as well as the identification of the genes responsible for the disease.

Nancy Wexler's research on Huntington's disease has led to the development of a presymptomatic test for the condition as well as the identification of the genes responsible for the disease. The symptoms of this fatal, genetically based disorder (for which Wexler herself is at risk) usually appear around middle age, and the disease leads to the degeneration of mental, psychological, and physical functioning. For her pivotal role in these achievements, Wexler was granted the Albert Lasker Public Service Award in 1993.

Nancy Sabin Wexler was born on July 19, 1945, to Milton Wexler, a Los Angeles psychoanalyst, and Leonore Sabin Wexler. She studied social relations and English at Radcliffe and graduated in 1967. Wexler subsequently traveled to Jamaica on a Fulbright scholarship and studied at the Hampstead Clinic Child Psychoanalytic Training Center in London.

In 1968 Wexler learned that her mother had developed the symptoms of Huntington's disease, a condition to which Wexler's maternal grandfather and three uncles had already succumbed. Efforts to fight the disease became a primary mission for Wexler and her family: Her father founded the Hereditary Disease Foundation in 1968, and Wexler herself, who was then entering the doctoral program in clinical psychology at the University of Michigan, eventually wrote her doctoral thesis on the "Perceptual-motor, Cognitive, and Emotional Characteristics of Persons-at-Risk for Huntington's Disease, " and received her Ph.D. in 1974.

After graduating from University of Michigan, Wexler taught psychology at the New School for Social Research in New York City and worked as a researcher on Huntington's disease for the National Institutes of Health (NIH). In 1976 she was appointed by congress to head the NIH's Commission for the Control of Huntington's Disease and its Consequences. In 1985 she joined the College of Physicians and Surgeons at Columbia University.

In 1979 Wexler's research led her to Lake Maracaibo in Venezuela, where she studied a community which had a high incidence of Huntington's disease. Wexler kept medical records, took blood and skin samples, and charted the transmission of the disease within families. Wexler sent the samples she collected to geneticist James Gusella at Massachusetts General Hospital, who used the blood samples to conduct a study to locate the gene—the first such genetic mapping of a disease. Gusella eventually discovered a deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) marker close to the Huntington's gene. Based on this study, Gusella introduced a test that was ninety-six percent accurate in detecting whether an individual bears the Huntington's gene. Because there was still no cure for the Huntington's disease, the test proved to be controversial, raising many issues involving patient rights, childbearing decisions, and discrimination by employers and insurance companies. In her interviews and writings Wexler has stressed the importance of keeping such genetic information confidential.

In 1993 the Huntington's gene was identified through research based on the Venezuelan blood samples and the work of the Huntington's Disease Collaborative Research Group. In October, 1993, Wexler received an Albert Lasker Public Service Award for her role in this effort. In addition, she has served as an advisor on social and medical ethics issues to the Human Genome Project—a massive international effort to map and identify the approximately 100, 000 genes in the human body. Wexler also has assumed directorship of the Hereditary Disease Foundation founded by her father, to which she donated the honorarium that accompanied the Lasker Award.

As a pioneer in the field of geriatric care management, Wexler was a founding member of the National Association of Professional Geriatric Care Managers. Sher served on the organization's first National Board of Directors, as well as the association's first standards committee. She serves as director of Gerontology Associates, Alzheimer's Case Management Professional Placement Services in Los Angeles and is on the staffs of UCLA Neuropsychiatric Institute, Encino-Tarzana Regional Medical Center, and Northridge Hospital.

Further Reading

About Nancy Wexler, MA, MFCC, "http://www.nancy-wexler.com/bio.htm," July 23, 1997.

Newsmakers, Gale, 1992, pp. 530-33.

U.S. News & World Report, April 22, 1985, pp. 75-76.

Bluestone, Mimi, "Science and Ethics: The Double Life of Nancy Wexler, " in Ms., November/December 1991, pp. 90-91.

Grady, Denise, "The Ticking of a Time Bomb in the Genes, " in Discover, June 1987.

Jaroff, Leon, "Making the Best of a Bad Gene, " in Time, February 10, 1992, pp. 78-79.

Konner, Melvin, "New Keys to the Mind, " in New York Times Magazine, July 17, 1988, pp. 49-50.

New York Times, October 1, 1993, p. A24. □

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