Whitehead Institute Director David Page honored with March of Dimes Prize

Whitehead Institute Director David Page has been named a recipient of the 2011 March of Dimes Prize in Developmental Biology. The prize honors Page’s groundbreaking body of research on the human Y chromosome.

Over the course of nearly three decades, Page and his colleagues have demonstrated that the chromosome once thought to be headed for eventual extinction has actually developed an elegant survival mechanism. The Y, as it turns out, maintains genetic diversity by swapping genes with itself at so-called palindromic regions—large areas of mirror-imaged genetic sequences. Page has also shown that this process can occasionally go awry, leading to the development of sex disorders ranging from failed sperm production to sex reversal to Turner’s syndrome.

David Page

Whitehead Institute Director David C. Page, MD

“It just feels wonderful to be recognized in this way,” says Page, who is also a professor of biology at MIT and an investigator of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. “It makes me reflect on all the people who worked with me in the lab over the past 30 years, so many researchers, so many patients with problems with sex chromosomes and fertility, all coming together to bring the Y chromosome some respect. I think this award is about the dramatically different way we think about the Y today.”

Page is sharing this year’s March of Dimes Prize, with another expert on human sex chromosomes: Patricia Ann Jacobs, professor of human genetics at Southampton University Medical School and co-director of research at Wessex Regional Genetics Laboratory in Salisbury, England. Jacobs is best known for her seminal 1959 study describing a chromosomal abnormality in which males carry an extra X chromosome. The condition would come to be known as Klinefelter syndrome.

“Taken together, the research  of Prof. Jacobs and Dr. Page has expanded medicine’s ability to diagnose and understand the basis of infertility and many other diseases,” says Michael Katz, MD, senior vice president for Research and Global Programs at the March of Dimes.

Page says he’s delighted that Jacobs is a co-recipient of the prize, noting that there is “a beautiful symmetry” about being paired with her.

“Pat Jacobs is one of my heroes,” he continues. “Her discovery would frame a large part of my career. 1959, when Pat’s paper was published, was also the year when the existence of a gene on the human Y chromosome was established. 1959 was really the year that human cytogenetics was born, and Pat was at the center of that revolution. Together, we have 52 years of rethinking sex chromosomes.”

The March of Dimes Prize in Developmental Biology has been awarded annually since 1996 to investigators whose research has profoundly advanced the science that underlies the understanding of birth defects. The March of Dimes Foundation created the Prize as a tribute to Dr. Jonas Salk shortly before his death in 1995. Dr. Salk received Foundation support for his work to create a polio vaccine.

Page and Jacobs will officially receive the prize next month in Denver, Colorado, at the annual meeting of the Pediatric Academic Societies. They will share the prize’s cash award of $250,000 and will each receive a silver medal in the design of the Roosevelt dime—a tribute to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who founded the March of Dimes.