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Nemmers Prize in Medical Science Awarded By Northwestern

Dr. Huda Zoghbi honored for influential work on neurological disorders

CHICAGO --- Dr. Huda Zoghbi, a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator and professor at Baylor College of Medicine known for her groundbreaking research on Rett syndrome and other neurological disorders, is the inaugural recipient of the Mechthild Esser Nemmers Prize in Medical Science at Northwestern University.

The Nemmers prize, which carries a $200,000 stipend, is awarded by Northwestern University to a physician-scientist whose body of research exhibits outstanding achievement in their discipline as demonstrated by works of lasting significance. A jury of distinguished scientists from around the country made the final selection. 

This award is made possible by a generous gift to Northwestern by the late Erwin Esser Nemmers and the late Frederic Esser Nemmers. The Nemmers Prize in Medical Science is the fourth Nemmers Prize to be established by Northwestern University and joins the Erwin Plein Nemmers Prize in Economics, the Frederic Esser Nemmers Prize in Mathematics, and the Michael Ludwig Nemmers Prize in Music Composition. The awards are given every other year.

Zoghbi, a professor of pediatrics, molecular and human genetics, and neurology and neuroscience at Baylor as well as director of the Jan and Dan Duncan Neurological Research Institute at Texas Children's Hospital, has devoted her career to uncovering the genetic roots of rare neurodegenerative and neurodevelopmental diseases that affect her patients.

“The Nemmers Prize in Medical Science recognizes an outstanding investigator whose discoveries have significantly contributed to improving human health beyond the individual patient,” said Dr. Eric G. Neilson, vice president for medical affairs and Lewis Landsberg Dean at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. “Huda is a superb physician-scientist who has transformed the way we think about the genetic determinants and mechanisms of disease. We are privileged to honor her with this inaugural award and for her to share her work with us.”

In connection with this award, Zoghbi will deliver a public lecture and participate in other scholarly activities at Feinberg in the coming year.

“It is a tremendous honor to be the inaugural Nemmers Prize recipient in Medical Science, and to have the opportunity to share my research with the stellar community of Northwestern University,” Zoghbi said. “It is truly humbling to be rewarded for what I love to do.” 

Zoghbi’s Accomplishments

One of Zoghbi’s earliest major discoveries, in collaboration with Harry Orr, was the first genetic mutation behind a spinocerebellar ataxia, a hereditary and often fatal brain disorder that impairs a patient’s ability to control movement.

In later work, she found that a gene called Math1 plays an important role in the formation of neurons in the brain’s cerebellum and spinal cord involved in balance and proprioception (awareness of the position of one’s body), inner ear hair cells critical for hearing, as well as brainstem neurons essential for breathing, balance and hearing. Her lab showed that uncontrolled growth of the cerebellar neurons contributes to brain tumors and that removing the gene stops tumors from developing.

She also identified MECP2 as the gene responsible for Rett syndrome, a neurological disorder that affects brain development, leading to severe problems with cognitive and motor functions. As the first to prove that the disease is genetic, her work opened up a new line of research on mutations that cause neuropsychiatric disorders such as autism.

Zoghbi’s scientific findings, featured in more than 350 publications, have touched many areas of medicine and inspired myriad other investigators. Her many honors and awards include the March of Dimes Prize in Developmental Biology and the Gruber Foundation Neuroscience Prize. She is a member of the Institute of Medicine, the National Academy of Sciences and the American Association for the Advancement of Science. She earned her medical degree at Meharry Medical College and holds honorary doctorates from Middlebury College, Meharry Medical College and Yale University. 

-- Story by Nora Dunne, a content specalist at the Feinberg School of Medicine