Hollywood steps in

A family from Hollywood sets off on a quest to identify the gene responsible for Huntington's, changing the face of psychiatry.
23 December 2013

Interview with 

Associate Professor Lynette Tippett, Professor Russell Snell, Auckland University


Richard mentioned a single gene responsible for Huntington's with a genetic test available to diagnose people.  No other disorder of the brain has made this breakthrough and I wanted to find out more about how this gene was discovered.

Russell -   Hi.  My name is Professor Russell Snell and I'm in the School of Biological Sciences in the University of Auckland.  I was one of the members of the group that found the gene actually, now 20 years ago.  I have to say that the Huntington's disease research community is a little bit special because it's always had lots of input and interaction with people or families who were affected by the disease.  And so, there's always quite a reality about our research meetings because generally speaking, somebody from and Huntington's family or a Huntington's patient who comes along to the meeting and presents in some way that is rather galvanising.  It's great, so it's true partnership between the research community and patients, which is at it should be.  Many years ago, when we found the gene, that was a collaborative group and great collaboration where we all shared the data prior to publication and see how rapidly, through collaboration research can advance.

Hannah -   We'll find out more about the gene and how sheep are involved in Hollywoodstudying it shortly.  But first, associate professor of psychology Lynette Tippett from Auckland University expands on how the Huntington's disease research community came about.

Lynette -   It began really with Milton Wexler, a psychiatrist in Hollywood.  His wife died of Huntington's disease, as did his 3 brothers.  He had 2 daughters who are still alive today, Nancy and Alice Wexler.  He decided he needed to find this gene and find a cure for Huntington's disease that he could cure his family or save his family.  And so, what he did was he started pulling together scientists from all around and just sort of putting them in a room and making them brainstorm finding this gene and finding out how to cure Huntington's disease.  It was unusual because instead of people fighting for grants and all the competitiveness that goes on in a lot of science, he managed to get these scientists in room, get them all in the same page, and all just being open and brainstorming ideas.  That's really how the Huntington's research field began.  So, the gene was finally found in 1993.  So, that's 20 years ago.  That sort of legacy of a lot of collaborative and interactive and international groups working together, that legacy of that collaboration I think continues today.  I think it's down to that very unique start to focus Huntington's research that came from the efforts of Milton Wexler.



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