U of MN professor elected to elite Institute of Medicine

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

University of Minnesota professor Harry T. Orr, Ph.D. is among the newest members to the prestigious Institute of Medicine of the National Academies. Orr is one of 70 new members and 10 foreign associates elected to the IOM, one of the highest honors in the fields of health and medicine.

Orr has made seminal contributions to the genetics of human immunity and neurodegenerative diseases, including discoveries that underpin strategies for mediating organ transplant acceptance. His work has also changed the landscape for several polyglutamine diseases, a family of diseases characterized by progressive degeneration of nerve cells.

His work understanding these progressive, degenerative diseases inspired a paradigm shift in research from a focus on protein accumulation, a hallmark of Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s and Huntington’s diseases, to an understanding of the function and biochemistry of the protein itself. His pioneering findings have been replicated for research involving several polyglutamine diseases.

“This honor could not be more well-deserved. Dr. Orr brings a passion and an undying curiosity that is a vital component to all research,” said Brooks Jackson, M.D. “Having worked in his lab nearly 30 years ago, I know Harry to be an outstanding mentor and truly one of our nation’s leading researchers.”

“It is a special honor to be elected. It is particularly humbling because my work is built on the contributions of several Minnesota families whose own observations of their hereditary diseases were so important to my research, “ said Orr, director of the U of MN Institute of Translational Neuroscience and professor in the department of Laboratory Medicine and Pathology in the U of MN School of Medicine.

One impactful area of Orr’s research relates closely to ataxia, a descriptive term for a dysfunction in the cerebellum that causes people to have problems with motor coordination and balance. Building on work started by John Schut, M.D., in the 1950s, Orr has advanced what we know about the causes of disease, including the identification in 1993 of the SCA1 gene, the first genetic defect known to cause spinocerebellar ataxia type 1.

While there is still no known cure for ataxia, the work by Orr and his colleagues at the Bob Allison Ataxia Research Center has given a glimmer of hope to people impacted by ataxia. Orr’s research has led to the development of candidate compounds to potentially treat SCA1 as well as animal models that can be used to identify those compounds for eventual use in human clinical trials.

Orr is the 16th U of MN scholar to be elected to the IOM since its establishment in 1970.

IOM is an independent nonprofit brand of the National Academy of Sciences and advises Congress on various health matters, from graduate medical education to research.

With their election, members make a commitment to volunteer their service on IOM committees, boards, and other activities. 

More information and a complete list of new members and foreign associates can be found here.