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On July 16, 2014, Christine Iwahashi, a research biochemist for more than 30 years at UC Davis, died of recurrent breast cancer at the age of 58. Since 2001, she has dedicated her life to understanding the causes of disorders related to the Fragile X gene.
Ms. Iwahashi obtained her biochemistry degree from UC Davis in 1976, followed by a three-year period of research at Stanford University prior to her return to UC Davis as a staff research biochemist. In addition to her career in research, she was highly regarded as an elite marathon runner and was an inductee into the Sacramento Running Association Hall of Fame.
During her tenure in the Hagerman lab, Ms. Iwahashi was a co-author on twelve papers, all focused on the molecular events leading to fragile X syndrome – the most common inherited form of intellectual disability and leading known disorder associated with autism – and the fragile X-associated tremor/ataxia syndrome, FXTAS (pronounced “fax-tass”).
In her landmark study published in 2006 in the British journal, BRAIN, Ms. Iwahashi was able to identify more than two dozen proteins that are associated with the brain abnormalities in FXTAS. Her discovery has helped guide subsequent research in the field. She also contributed to the discovery of Fragile X messenger RNA within specific brain aggregates in FXTAS, a critical observation that has helped to refine current research on targeted treatments for the neurodegenerative disorder.
In addition, Ms. Iwahashi also developed a quantitative ELISA test for the Fragile X protein, which is deficient in fragile X syndrome; she later became a co-inventor on a patent for her test.
She also contributed to research on mitochondrial dysfunction in FXTAS and, with clinical collaborators, on the relationship between deficient Fragile X protein levels and both working memory and amygdala dysfunction, all with the goal of better treatments.
In all aspects of her work, which exemplifies her intellectual and bench skills, Ms. Iwahashi demonstrated a sincere desire to improve the lives of the people whose disorders she was investigating. She was fearless in exploring new avenues of research, all the while acting as the laboratory manager and helping with the training of new personnel. Indeed, she demonstrated the same measures of empathy and guidance as a teacher within the lab that she displayed as a running coach.
As a testament to her indomitable spirit, Ms. Iwahashi continued to work throughout the past four years, even as she was undergoing chemotherapy for her cancer and to within a week of her death. She will be greatly missed by all who knew her and by the Fragile X community whose lives she sought to improve.