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The Genes Have It

Father and son geneticists pursue life’s work together

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Geneticist Aubrey Milunsky and his son, Jeff (CAS’88, MED’92), are codirectors of the MED Center for Human Genetics. Photo by Vernon Doucette

In 1979, geneticist Aubrey Milunsky dedicated his seminal reference text Genetic Disorders and the Fetus to his 12-year-old son, Jeff. Today, Jeff Milunsky is not only the coeditor of the book’s sixth edition, he recently joined his father as a codirector of the School of Medicine’s Center for Human Genetics (CHG), a major international referral center for DNA diagnostics and prenatal genetic diagnosis founded by Aubrey Milunsky more than 25 years ago. Talk about the genes — that is, the apple — not falling far from the tree.

“It’s a little bit of nature and a little bit of nurture,” says Jeff Milunsky (CAS’88, MED’92). “My dad would always come home very excited about everything he did that day, and we would talk about it over dinner when I was in high school. I pursued some outside research in genetics in college and medical school, and it continued to strike my interest. At one point, I was thinking about law, but medicine was really a true calling for me.”

Jeff Milunsky graduated with a bachelor’s degree in biology from the College of Arts & Sciences and an M.D. from MED. “And he walked away,” Aubrey Milunsky adds, “with a whole stack of prizes.”

The South African–born senior Milunsky is a renowned figure in genetics, the author or editor of 22 books, including for the general reader Your Genetic Destiny: Know Your Genes, Secure Your Health, Save Your Life, which is available in six languages. He has been listed repeatedly in the Guide to America’s Top Pediatricians. In 1982, after 13 years as a medical geneticist at Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital, he joined the faculty at MED, where he is a professor of human genetics, pediatrics, obstetrics and gynecology, and pathology.

While his father was busy with the Center for Human Genetics, Jeff Milunsky accepted a residency in pediatrics at Tufts–New England Medical Center and later pursued two fellowships at CHG — one in clinical genetics and the other in clinical molecular genetics. In 1996, he joined the center as an instructor. He recently became a full professor at MED and is medical director of the four-year old master’s program in genetic counseling, one of 2 such programs in New England and 32 in the country.

This past November, Jeff was named codirector of CHG.

“The Drs. Milunsky are one of only a few father-son leadership teams in medical research,” says Karen Antman, dean of MED and provost of the Medical Campus. “They provide a continuum in the incredibly important discipline of human genetics research and diagnostics.”

“There was a period of time where I could show and teach Jeff,” says Aubrey Milunsky. “Now he is teaching me. The advances in genetics are such that the technological knowledge that’s evolving is hard to keep up with. Jeff, who is board-certified in molecular genetics while I am not, is able to provide insights and knowledge of things that I might not be aware of.”

The Human Genome Project and related advancements have led to greater demand for genetic expertise in a variety of medical specialties. The number of genetic counselors working in New England has doubled over the past 10 years. This year, 120 candidates applied for 7 spots in BU’s master’s program.

“There’s hardly a day you can pick up a newspaper and not find genetics somewhere in there,” says Aubrey Milunsky. “At last, the world has become aware about their genes.”

And the Milunskys wonder about theirs. The oldest of Jeff Milunsky’s three children is 13, so it’s still early to tell whether the genetics gene has passed down to another generation. “I guess we’ll see,” he says. “Time will tell.”

Caleb Daniloff can be reached at cdanilof@bu.edu.

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