Jean Bennett '72 DPH Receives 2020 Distinguished Alumna Award

Dr. Jean Bennett '72 DPH, a molecular geneticist who developed the first gene therapy approved for use in humans, is the recipient of Hopkins School's 2020 Distinguished Alumna Award. On February 10, 2020, she visited campus to receive the honor, to share her story with the community, and to work with students in the classroom.

For the last 30 years, Bennett has been a pioneer in gene therapy looking for a way to treat a hereditary form of blindness. In December 2017, her team’s gene therapy treatment, known as LUXTURNA™, received FDA approval, paving the way not only for treatment of hereditary blindness, but also for researchers to use gene therapy to treat other genetic conditions. The decision marks the nation’s first gene therapy approved for the treatment of a genetic disease, and the first in which a new, corrective gene is injected directly into a patient.

LUXTURNA™ significantly improves eyesight in patients with confirmed biallelic RPE65 mutation-associated retinal dystrophy. Patients with RPE65 mutations suffer from severe visual impairment at infancy or early childhood, and by mid-life become totally blind. They previously had no pharmacologic treatment options. Before she found a way to use gene therapy to treat inherited blindness in children, Bennett restored sight in puppies—two of which now live with her.

When Bennett and her husband, Albert Maguire, a retinal surgeon, first decided to commit to investigating ways to treat genetic blindness with gene therapy in the 1990s, they had no idea what they were up against, she explained.

“We felt that with the growth of technology, which allows people to clone and manipulate DNA, and knowledge of what the genes were, we could make a difference. We were very naive. We didn’t know all the obstacles, but we starting tackling them one by one,” she said.

Following her graduation from Day Prospect Hill School in 1972, Bennett graduated with honors with a bachelor of science in biology from Yale University in 1976. In 1980, she obtained a Doctorate of Philosophy in Zoology; Cell And Developmental Biology from the University of California at Berkley. Bennett continued on to Harvard University to receive her Doctor of Medicine (M.D.) in 1986.

During her visit to Hopkins on February 10, Bennett shared her story from her days as a young student at Day Prospect Hill to leading a team of scientists today. She was in the final class to graduate before DPH merged with Hopkins in 1973. During assembly, she mentioned female teachers at DPH who were instrumental in her journey to becoming a molecular geneticist, particularly science teacher Ginny Wrigley and math teacher Marjorie Herzenberg.

At the end of her talk, Head of School Kai Bynum presented her with the 2020 Distinguished Alumna Award. She then spent the rest of the morning working with students in the Malone Science Center in the HARPS Lab and in a biology class. She also led two Q&A sessions attended by students, faculty and staff.

"We are incredibly grateful that Dr. Bennett visited Hopkins and shared her story with us." Bynum said. "And, I want to thank her for inspiring future generations of pioneers in the field of science and medicine."