Issue 99, December 2007
Milton Wexler, who died on March 16 aged 98, set out to find a cure for Huntington's disease after his ex-wife, the mother of his two daughters, was diagnosed with the disorder; his efforts bore fruit in 1993 when scientists identified the faulty gene which causes the disease.
Reproduced by kind permission of the Daily Telegraph
Huntington's disease is an inherited genetic disorder, which causes the premature death of nerve cells in the brain, triggering an inexorable mental and physical deterioration. As the disease progresses, movements become uncontrollable and sometimes violent. The first symptoms generally appear in middle age; one or two decades later, the patient dies. People with a parent affected by the disease have a 50:50 chance of developing it themselves - and of passing it on to their own children.
Leonore Wexler's father and three brothers had died of the disease, but she had believed that it only afflicted men. In 1967, however, she was crossing a Los Angeles street when she began to jerk and stumble. A policeman stopped her and inquired why she had been drinking so early in the morning. Subsequently a neurologist confirmed what she most feared. She had the disease, and therefore her two daughters had an even chance of developing it too.
Devastated by the news, Wexler, a prominent Hollywood psychoanalyst whose clients included Blake Edwards and the architect Frank Gehry, got in touch with the widow of Huntington's most famous victim, the folk singer Woody Guthrie. She had formed an organisation to campaign for research and he decided to set up a branch in California. Wexler's group became the Hereditary Disease Foundation, an organisation dedicated to researching causes and cures for Huntington's disease and similar inherited disorders.
Helped by his daughter Nancy, a clinical psychologist, Wexler set about finding bright young geneticists, neurologists and psychologists to research the disease, offering them free travel and a $1,000 inducement fee. They convened at freewheeling "brainstorming" workshops, modelled on psychiatric group therapy sessions. As well as the research scientists, the sessions attracted leading thinkers such as the Nobel laureate James Watson. Wexler's Hollywood clients gave generously to the foundation and hosted parties at which young scientists would rub shoulders with such stars as Walter Matthau, Jack Lemmon and
In 1972 Wexler heard about a village in Venezuela that had been riddled with Huntington's for generations. Subsequently Nancy Wexler set up a research project there, in the hope that studying several generations of families with the disease would give scientists a chance to examine the DNA of those who had the disease and those who had escaped it. With her sister Alice, an historian, she made several trips to Venezuela, taking samples and charting family histories. Eventually they traced the disease back to one woman whose descendants numbered some 9,000 people.
In 1983 a molecular geneticist at MIT, working on blood samples sent from the Venezuelan project, achieved a breakthrough few scientists had believed possible when he located human chromosomes that contained the Huntington's disease gene. A decade later the gene itself was identified.
The discovery was hugely significant, not only because it enabled the development of pre- and post-natal predictive testing for the disease, but for genetic research more generally. It demonstrated that it might be possible to map the entire human genome - a task that was eventually completed in 2003.
Milton Wexler was born in San Francisco in 1908 and grew up in New York City, where he trained as a lawyer before switching to Psychology. After taking a doctorate at Columbia University, studying under Theodor Reik, a disciple of Freud, he became one of the country's first non-physicians to set up in practice as a psychoanalyst. In 1946, after wartime service in the US Navy, Wexler joined the staff of the Menninger Foundation in Topeka, Kansas, a research and treatment centre where he became known for his success in treating schizophrenics. When his wife's three brothers were diagnosed with Huntington's in 1950, he moved to Los Angeles and established a more lucrative private practice so that he could support them.
Wexler became a pioneer of group therapy and his sessions attracted writers, artists and Hollywood stars, including the director Blake Edwards, with whom he collaborated on the scripts of The Man who Loved Women (1983) and That's Life! (1986). When George Segal pulled out of 10, Edwards found his replacement, Dudley Moore, at Wexler's therapy group. It was also at one of Wexler's sessions that the architect Frank Gehry felt he had discovered what was holding him back in his career, when fellow members of the group told him that they took his shyness for hostility.
The obvious symptoms of Huntington's disease are often preceded by a period during which the victim suffers depression, irritability, obsessive-compulsive thoughts and memory lapses. In the 1950s Wexler's wife, Leonore, once an outgoing, bubbly woman, began showing symptoms of depression and withdrawal and even attempted suicide. They divorced in 1962; in retrospect, Wexler realised that the early symptoms of Huntington's had destroyed their marriage.
Though the discovery of the Huntington's gene enabled the development of a test for the condition, Wexler's daughters decided not to take it, deciding that they did not want to know. They had decided not to have children when their mother was diagnosed with the disease.
Leonore Wexler died in 1978, 10 years after her diagnosis. Milton Wexler's daughters survive him.
Acknowledgement: Newsletter - June 2007 - Huntington's Disease Association, UK