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Science of the Sexes

Emiliano Ponzi

Science of the Sexes (continued)

Both males and females always are used for comparative purposes in the Fairweather lab where sex differences have been shown to drive autoimmune disease.

Autoimmune diseases are notoriously lopsided in terms of whom they strike. Thyroid disease affects mainly women while dilated cardiomyopathy (the chronic type of heart disease that Fairweather’s studying) affects men more.

It’s not simply good practice to acknowledge sex differences, it’s outright dangerous to ignore them, says UCLA’s Art Arnold: “Treating one sex like the other may be as inappropriate as treating a child like an adult. The equitable treatment of females and males requires an understanding of their differences.”

When Sabra Klein gave presentations early on in her career and talked about the differences she saw between the sexes, she was invariably followed by a more senior colleague who would not mention any differences between males and females. Inevitably, an audience member would ask if he saw the same types of differences that Dr. Klein reported.

The answer, Klein recalls, always was curt and final: No. Absolutely not.

“That would be it, with no further explanation,” Klein says. “And I’d feel everything sink. I wasn’t born with thick skin. I’d take it personally and worry: What are people trying to say about me, my data, the quality of my work?

“But as soon as I’d get back into the lab, into what we were doing, I’d get over the intimidation because I was excited by the research. I believed in it.”

It didn’t hurt that senior faculty in her department believed in her work as much as she did: “Diane Griffin, Al Scott and Greg Glass had a lot to do with my ability to stand up and be that lone voice in the wilderness. They took a risk hiring me. They told me I needed to lay claim to a field.”

These days, the very same people who made presentations after Klein and disavowed sex differences now are sending their data to her, reporting that they too are seeing trends. They now allow Klein to present their unpublished data in talks, which is a giant leap forward. But out there in the published world, sex differences remain largely ignored.

“When you put your data out there, you are choosing to enter a debate,” Klein says. “It’s not some definitive conclusion; the book is not closed, the story not over. You put yourself out there to be judged, and to be open to people’s interpretations. I am always working to hone my arguments, to improve on my logic.”

But as the long, cold flu season gives way to Spring, Sabra Klein senses a thawing of attitudes toward sex-based biology. Her team recently resubmitted a research paper for consideration by a prestigious journal. Because the reviewers’ comments and concerns had been so constructive, Klein has reason to believe that she’ll hear good news back soon: “I think they might actually be rooting for us.”


This forum is closed
  • Keith Berry

    Sterling Va 10/31/2011 01:06:34 PM

    Very nice article, I wish Ms Klein great success, my wife was recently tested for lyme disease, and it came out negative, but now has swelling in the knee. I am thinking there might be some correlation here. I hope not but can't help but wonder. Maybe we need to make a trip up to Baltimore?

  • Denise Dalton

    Baltimore 11/08/2011 05:51:24 PM

    Keith, Swelling in the knee is a very typical presentation of Lyme disease. Tests can be negative in the early stages. I'm not sure of her exposure risk, or the timing between her test and knee swelling, but to further educate, I highly recommend the Columbia University Research Center for Tick-Borne Disease Website to get accurate information on testing, symptoms, etc. First, read through all the patient links on the left, then scour the rest of the site for additional information regarding the current state of research, etc. I wish your wife the best.Untreated lyme disease can create a host of challenging health issues beyond the typical presentations; especially if there is a co-infection that can complicate accurate diagnosis & treatment. ~Denise

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