Sonia Vallabh and Eric Minikel, Broad Institute, Cambridge, USA
In 2010, Sonia Vallabh and her husband, Eric Minikel, watched Sonia’s 52-year-old mother die of a rapid, mysterious, and undiagnosed neurodegenerative disease. 1 year later, they learned that Sonia’s mother had genetic prion disease and that Sonia herself had inherited the causal mutation, making it very likely she would have the same fate. Despite having no previous training in biology, Sonia and Eric set out together to retrain as biomedical scientists and devote their lives to finding a treatment. Following night classes in biology and their first jobs in laboratories, they began their PhDs in biomedical research at Harvard Medical School in 2014, which they defended in April, 2019. They now lead their own research laboratory at the Broad Institute, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Harvard, where they have launched a new therapeutic initiative focused on discovering drugs for prion disease and assembling a clinical pipeline to translate these advances into meaningful gains for patients. In addition to their disease-specific scientific mission, Sonia and Eric have become advocates for leveraging genetics to design and test drugs for the primary prevention of neurodegenerative disease, with the goal of preserving full brain health. Sonia and Eric co-direct a research non-profit company, Prion Alliance, and Eric maintains a blog about prion science at cureffi.org. In 2016, Sonia was invited to share her journey with President Obama as part of the Precision Medicine Initiative. Sonia and Eric’s quest has also been covered in the news, most recently by NPR and WIRED.
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