d’Arbeloff Center researcher receives prestigious NIH award for studies on sex hormones and sex chromosomes
Rebecca Harris, a physician-scientist at Whitehead Institute’s Brit J. d’Arbeloff Center for Women’s Health, has received a prestigious funding award from the NIH’s Building Interdisciplinary Research Careers in Women's Health (BIRCWH) program. BIRCWH is a mentored career-development program that connects high-achieving early-career researchers with established investigators pursuing research in women's health and in the mechanisms underlying sex differences in health and disease.
Harris, who earned an MD and PhD from Northwestern University, divides her time between clinical work at Boston Children’s Hospital and research at Whitehead Institute. As a clinical endocrinologist, she works primarily with children, adolescents, and young adults undergoing gender transition. At the Institute four days a week, she conducts basic science research as an investigator in the d’Arbeloff Center and a postdoctoral fellow in the lab of Whitehead Institute Member and former director David Page.
“In caring for transgender patients at Boston Children's, it will be valuable to have a better understanding than science presently offers of the relative effects of gender affirming hormones — estrogen and testosterone — and of sex chromosomes,” Harris says. “The BIRCWH funding award will help underwrite my basic science research on this area where there is still so much to learn.”
But the implications of Harris’s research go far beyond the health challenges of her gender transition patients. Her ultimate goal is to help tease apart, at the molecular level, the specific affects of hormones and sex chromosomes when it comes to health and disease in women. Harris’s initial studies are examining gene expression in white blood cells, and she hopes this work will offer clues as to why women have a higher incidence of autoimmune disease than men. The BIRCWH award will help Harris extend the length and range of her investigations: enabling her to conduct longer-term studies and to begin studying other tissue types.
The Institute’s d’Arbeloff Center and Page lab offer an ideal setting for her basic science research. The d’Arbeloff Center is designed to drive progress in understanding health and treating disease in women, by catalyzing basic research, translational studies, and collaborations that transform health care for women. Its investigators are pursuing a comprehensive effort to understand sex differences at the molecular level by building a fundamental understanding of how the female and male genome, transcriptome, epigenome, proteome, and metabolome differ. In the long run, determining the practical implications of those differences should lead to better, more effective treatments for both women and men.
The Page Lab has embarked on a long-term, integrated program of scientific research, with the goal of understanding the contributions of the sex chromosomes to sex differences in health and disease. Page explains, “Many debilitating diseases show striking yet unexplained sex biases in prevalence and severity. Such biases have historically been attributed entirely to factors such as sex hormones or environment, with the biomedical community ignoring the multifaceted impact of the X and Y chromosomes. The resulting blind spot means that biomedicine has little knowledge of the potentially widespread molecular differences—and health implications—that result from having different sex chromosomes.
“Rebecca’s work will be tremendously important in building our collective understanding of the relative roles of sex chromosomes and sex hormones in the mechanisms driving sex-biased diseases.”
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