Husband and wife start PhD after learning of disease

Eric Minikel and Sonia Vallabh were working as an urban planner and a lawyer until 2011, when they learned Sonia has a rare heritable disease – Fatal Familial Insomnia (FFI). FFI is caused by a mutation in the PRNP gene, which encodes prion protein PrP. Although the function of PrP isn’t precisely known, the mutated form can misfold the normal form of the protein (FFI a prion disease). 

After receiving the unfortunate news from a genetic test, Eric and Sonia decided to devote their life to researching FFI. Both left their jobs for research positions at Massachusetts General Hospital. They soon started a scientific blog, CureFFI.org, where they discuss their research progress and next steps. In addition, Eric and Sonia founded Prion Alliance, a nonprofit devoted to funding prion disease research.

Now, Eric and Sonia have decided to take their research one step further: both will be starting PhDs at Harvard Medical School in the fall. Eric has turned his previous computational and analysis skills toward bioinformatics:

 “My thesis was on analyzing bicycle-accident data, and I worked with my advisor, Professor Joe Ferreira, on an analysis of Massachusetts vehicle accident and insurance data. In the course of this, I learned to code in R and to manage SQL databases, both hard skills that I use every day now in the bioinformatics world. More broadly, writing my thesis taught me how to frame and answer a research question, which has been invaluable,” he said.

Eric and Sonia’s story is truly inspiring. In the face of a diagnosis that is basically a death sentence, they chose to fight back and devote their life to prion disease research. I guess it’s never too late to get a PhD!

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