UW News

October 22, 2009

Motulsky to receive inaugural award for lifetime of work in human genetics

Dr. Arno Motulsky, UW professor emeritus of medicine (medical genetics) and genome sciences, will receive the inaugural Victor McKusick Leadership Award at the 2009 Annual Meeting of the American Society of Human Genetics in Honolulu on Oct. 24. This award is granted in recognition of Motulsky’s pioneering work and illustrious career in medical genetics that has spanned more than five decades. The award is named for Victor McKusick who died in 2008 at age eighty-six and was widely recognized as having influenced and shaped the edifice of medical genetics. The award honors human geneticists who have fostered and worked in various human genetics disciplines, thereby influencing all of medicine.

Judith Hall, a renowned pediatric geneticist at the British Columbia Children’s Hospital, Vancouver, B.C., and the very first medical student of Motulsky in his then elective course on medical genetics in the UW Medical School, will introduce Motulsky in Honolulu.

“Arno is a perfect recipient for the McKusick prize since he has enriched the development of human genetics and exemplified enduring leadership and vision. He personally has helped to ensure that human genetics would flourish and become part of mainstream medicine” Hall said.

Motulsky is known among scientists as the “father of pharmacogenetics,” a field that explores the role of genetic variation in response to drugs. In his 1957 scientific journal article that reported the negative interactions of drugs with enzymes that are produced by certain human genes, Motulsky asked whether this might be true of other pharmaceuticals. It was a question that triggered a research revolution and led to the formation of this new field of study called pharmacogenetics.

That same year, Motulsky founded the Division of Medical Genetics at the UW with the encouragement of Dr. Robert Williams, then chair of the UW Department of Medicine. On the opposite coast, also in 1957, Dr. Victor McKusick started a Division of Medical Genetics at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore. McKusick was an early proponent of completely mapping the human genome, 34 years before the goal was achieved in 2003. He also influenced medical geneticists practicing and training around the globe through his gene catalogs, which list thousands of genes on the web.

Following training in internal medicine and hematology, as well as research in blood diseases, Motulsky was first recruited to the University of Washington in 1953 as a hematology instructor, where the study of blood and blood diseases — many of which are genetic — continued to peak his interest in the pioneering field of medical genetics.

Since then Motulsky has gained an international reputation as a renowned researcher, teacher, mentor and clinician. He performed the first bone marrow transplant in an animal model and investigated the genetic basis of hyperlipidemia — an elevation of lipids in the bloodstream — in coronary heart disease. He has also studied the relationship between genetics and susceptibility to disease from environmental agents through the Center of Ecogenetics and Environmental Health at UW, and has researched the molecular genetics of human color vision.

Motulsky’s reputation in the field has attracted medical geneticists to UW from far and wide, helping to shape what is today recognized as a premier training program for adult genetic diseases in the nation.