Guest Speaker to defend the integrity of the Y chromosome

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David C. Page, MD

Scientist David C. Page, MD, will challenge popular conceptions and misconceptions about the X and Y chromosomes during his Annual Meeting Plenary session guest speaker presentation “Rethinking the Pristine X and Rotting Y Chromosomes,” on Sunday, March 23.

“For more than a decade, the one dominant storyline in public discourse about the Y was that it is disappearing,” said Dr. Page, director of Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research, professor of biology at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), and Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator.

Proponents of the so-called “rotting Y” theory have been predicting the eventual extinction of the Y chromosome since it was first discovered that the Y has lost hundreds of genes over the past 300 million years, he said. The rotting Y theorists have assumed this trend is ongoing, concluding that inevitably, the Y will one day be utterly devoid of its genetic content.

Dr. Page and his lab members dealt this theory a fatal blow with their discovery that the Y chromosome of the rhesus macaque — an Old World monkey whose evolutionary path diverged from that of humans some 25 million years ago — reveals remarkable genetic stability when compared with the Y chromosomes of humans and chimpanzees. Thanks to Dr. Page and his collaborators, we can rest assured that the Y chromosome is here to stay.

But why is this important? And what does it have to do with 21st century medicine? According to Dr. Page, there are a host of diseases outside the reproductive tract, including scleroderma, rheumatoid arthritis, and autism, that are more common or severe in women or men, or vice versa.

“We don’t know why that’s the case, and there are very few researchers addressing the question, but I predict this will be an increasingly important topic of research and exploration in the coming years,” he said. “And I have a strong hunch that the X and Y chromosomes will be leading protagonists in the story that is eventually told.”

Dr. Page’s ultimate goal for his presentation is to make the world of genes, chromosomes, and DNA more accessible, and to connect the biological differences between the genders to medicine, health, and disease.

“I am hoping to inspire dermatologists to think about chromosomes in depth,” he said, “and to see how the questions I think about every day are beginning to enter the field of dermatology.”

Dr. Page contends that medical research has overlooked a fundamental fact with its assumption that male and female cells are equal and interchangeable in the lab, most notably because conventional wisdom holds that the X and Y chromosomes are relevant only within the reproductive tract.

“I want to challenge my audience to think more deeply about differential disease susceptibility in women and men,” Dr. Page said, “and join me in questioning whether the 300 million years of evolution that has produced the X and Y chromosomes of today might be part of the story.”

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