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Galton Inaugural Lecture: Neurological disease – Nature and Nurture

By ucyow3c, on 31 October 2011

Now, as the health sciences finally enter a golden age of genetics, the relevancy of the Galton Chair has never been greater: this was the message of Professor Nicholas Wood’s inaugural lecture, which he delivered to a packed auditorium of colleagues, friends and family at UCL on Wednesday 19 October. UCL PhD student Gavin Charlesworth summarises the lecture below.

Professor Wood began by reflecting on the work of that illustrious scientist and pioneer in the field of genetics, Francis Galton, after whom the chair is named. He reminded the audience that Galton was responsible for many ideas that remain fundamental to the practice of genetics today, such as the regression to the mean and correlation, and famously coined the phrase ‘nature and nurture’ to describe a debate that continues to rage even today.

Galton was, of course, a man of his times and, despite his evident genius, some of his ideas now seem flawed and, occasionally, shocking. Professor Wood drew laughter from the audience as he recounted how Galton undertook a ‘scientific’ study of female beauty across Britain, rating women that passed him on the street as either ‘attractive, indifferent or repellent’. Clearly ethics committees were an institution of which Galton was blessedly unaware.

Galton’s somewhat Victorian conception of the abilities of men and women was also evident in the rather amusing pedigree he drew to trace the appearance of the trait of scientific genius through his own extended family, a trait which was seen never to alight on a single female member in some five generations! Galton’s most dubious claim to fame, however, is his recognition as the ‘father of eugenics’, an entirely respectable science at the time that has since been rejected, not least because it is now known to have rested on faulty premises. Professor Wood quipped that this would not be area where he planned on taking the baton from his celebrated predecessor.

The audience were treated to a review of Professor Wood’s own distinguished career, from his initial foray into research on the immunogenetic basis of multiple sclerosis at Cambridge through to his current appointment as the Galton Professor of Genetics.

Along the way we learned about some of the neurology greats that had influenced his practice, such as Anita Harding and David Marsden, as well as the means of his eventual transition into the field of genetics in Parkinson’s Disease. Professor Wood confessed that the prospects had seemed unpromising at the outset, with all the available evidence suggesting that genes made little or no contribution to the disease.

Yet, to date, his lab has been responsible for cloning two of the genes known to cause familial Parkinson’s disease and for identifying 16 loci that contribute to the risk of developing the sporadic form of the disease, as well as issuing forth a continuous stream of high-quality publications exploring the functional consequences of these and other genetic changes. Professor Wood used the occasion of this review of his work to pay tribute to all those scientists and colleagues with whom he has had the pleasure of working over the years, and also to highlight the contributions that other renowned Galton professors – such as Fisher, Penrose and Pearson – have made to the field in which he works.

To round off his lecture, Professor Wood set out his vision of the road ahead. He lamented the current poor understanding of the molecular pathways involved in neurodegeneration when compared to our understanding of the pathways involved in other diseases such as cancer. Genetics, he believes, offers us a way into this complex web of interacting mechanisms by highlighting genes, and thus proteins, whose dysfunction can lead to disease. By following up on these genetic hits with careful studies in cell and animal models, core pathways to neurodegeneration can be delineated and key nodal points identified, with the eventual aim of pharmacological intervention to reinstate the physiological balance. As ever, Professor Wood reminded the audience, the ultimate goal of all medical research should and must remain improving patient care.

The lecture was followed by a friendly reception in the South Cloisters, which was attended by much of the audience.

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