Huntington’s disease, also known as Huntington’s chorea is a genetic disorder
that usually shows up in someone in their thirties and forties, destroys the
mind and body and leads to insanity and death within ten to twenty years. The
disease works by degenerating the ganglia (a pair of nerve clusters deep in the
brain that controls movement, thought, perception, and memory) and cortex by
using energy incorrectly. The brain will starve the neurons (brain cells), and
sometimes make them work harder than usual, causing extreme mental stress. The
result is jerky, random, uncontrollable, rapid movement such as grimacing of the
face, flailing of arms and legs, and other such movement. This is known as
Huntington’s chorea is hereditary and is caused by a recently discovered
abnormal gene, IT15. IT stands for “interesting transcript” because of the fact
that researchers have no idea what the gene does in the body. Huntington’s
disease is an inherited mutation that produces extra copies of a gene sequence
(IT15) on the short arm of chromosome 4. A genetic base that exists in
triplicate, CAG for short, is effected by Huntington’s disease. In normal people,
the gene has eleven to thirty-four of these, but, in a victim of Huntington’s
disease the gene exists from anywhere between thirty-five to one-hundred or more.
The gene for the disease is dominant, giving children of victims of Huntington’s
disease a 50% chance of obtaining the disease.
Several other symptoms of the disease exist other than chorea. High levels of
lactic acid have been detected in patients of Huntington’s disease as a bi-
product of the brain cells working too hard. Also, up to six times above the
normal level of an important brain brain protein, bFGF (or basic fibroblast
growth factor) in areas of the brain effected by the chorea. This occurs from
the problems on chromosome 4, where the gene for control of bFGF is also located.
As of yet, there is no treatment for Huntington’s disease. But with the
discovery of the mutated genes that cause it, there is now a way of diagnosing
if you will get it. This technique was discovered only recently and reported in
the Journal of American Medical Association in April, 1993. Something that many
people do not want to know. Because it can go two ways. Either you are extremely
relieved because the test shows up negative, and a great burdon is lifted off of
your mind, or you show up positive, and know how and a little bit about when you
will die, increasing the burdun very greatly. And living the rest of your life
Some 30,000 Americans are currently suffering for this genetic disorder. Named
in 1872 for George Huntington the New York Doctor who first wrote down it’s
devestating symtoms, Huntingtons disease up to now was a silent time bomb.
13,000 people, the largest known concentration of sufferers from Huntington’s
Disease, live in the Lake Maracaibo region of Venezuela. The origins of this
gene pool has been traced back to the 1800’s to a woman named Maria Concepcion.
It was from blood samples of these people that scientists became extraordinarily
lucky and isolated the genetic marker that shows the presence of this disorder.
Today, it is believed that Maria obtained the disease when she was birthed by a
Since it was first recorded by George Huntington, a Long Island doctor,
Huntington’s disease had remained fairly low key. No one heard about it until it
infected Woodie Guthrie, A famous folk singer from the 1920’s who showed
symptoms of the disease. In 1967, he died. This put Huntington’s Disease on the
map, but it still was not well known. But, before Woodie guthrie died, he had a
son, Arlo Guthrie. He, too became a famous folk singer, this time from the
Seventies. He became extremely famous, but had to live with the fact that he has
a 50% chance of having the disorder. That aroused huge public interest and made
the disease well-known.
Now that you know about Huntington’s disease, you can imagine how it works, and
the probability of getting it. But, can you imagine how it feels to have the
disorder? What would it be like to know that you have a 50% chance of not
reaching your sixtieth birthday? Now, enter the life of Nancy Wexler, a woman
who knows how it feels for both of these. She watched as her mother died from
the disease, and has to live with the fact that she may be next. When Wexler was
young, three of her uncles died of the killer disease. “Men only got
Huntington’s disease” went the myth. Then it happened; her sister was told by
her doctor that her unusual walk was an early symptom. She too had the disease.
Since then, she and her sister Alice, swore never to have children. Years later,
Wexler joined up with her husband Milton Wexler, and Marjorie Guthrie, wife of
Woodie Guthrie, and formed the Los Angeles chapter of the Commitee to combat
Huntington’s Disease. Guthrie wanted to focus the organization on patient care,
but Wexler was intent on finding a cure. So, she began to invite biologists to
help study the disease while she worked to get her Ph.D. In 1976 she moved to
Washington to become executive director of the Congressional Commission for the
control of Huntington’s disease and it’s Consequences. Once there, they
discovered that Huntington’s disease works by distroying the Ganglia. Then they
decided that the best way to research Huntington’s disease was at the level of
the gene. They decided to loook for a “marker” (small identifiable piece of DNA)
of where the faulty gene is located. This normally would yave taken 50 to 75
years to find. But, on a freak chance, they found it. it was the 12th marker
that they tested. The discovery of the marker led to the discovery of the gene
which won Wexler the Albert Lasker Public Service Award. The highest honor in
American medicine. She also developed a test to accurately determine whether or
not someone will get Huntington’s disease.
Wexler will not reveal if she, herself has taken the test because she does a
multitude of genetic counciling, and does not want to sway her patients’
decisions on whether or not to take the test. But, whether she tests positive or
negative, Huntington’s disease will live on. Unless scientists like Wexler can
find a cure.