POWERING A BIOMEDICAL QUEST:
Brit d’Arbeloff Underwrites Research on Sex Differences in Health and Disease
For more than five decades, Brit d’Arbeloff has seen and experienced the particular challenges facing women in science and engineering. When she earned her master’s degree at Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the 1960s, she was the sole woman in the school’s mechanical engineering department. She went on to build a successful career in computer software development until the field evolved and women were increasingly made to feel unwanted. Throughout the years, she also saw how hurdles were thrown in the way of women working to become leaders in biomedical research.
She also came to understand that the gender gap existed not only in the research workforce but in the research itself. “Until the 1990s, most medical research ignored women,” d’Arbeloff says. “Even though it was clear that women and men often experienced disease differently—heart attack symptoms being the most obvious example—basic research and clinical trials excluded women because we ‘threw off’ the results.” This willful ignorance often resulted in women receiving ineffective preventive, diagnostic, and therapeutic care. And, d’Arbeloff learned, the problem persists today, harming women in every part of the world, including the United States.
That’s why she made two significant gifts—of $5 million in 2016 and $10 million in 2019—to support Whitehead Institute’s Sex Differences in Health and Disease Initiative, a research program led by Institute Member and former director David Page. “The biomedical research enterprise has lost so much time on what one would think is a fundamentally important topic,” Page says. “And Brit d’Arbeloff’s philanthropic support has helped us hit the ground running.”
The overall Initiative is 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.
d’Arbeloff’s 2019 gift established the Brit Jepson d’Arbeloff Center on Women's Health within the Initiative. It 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.
“Brit d’Arbeloff has been a trailblazer in science, research, and education,” says Page. “This is just the latest example of her determination to help drive biomedical research forward in significant ways. Her leadership and generosity are enabling us to build a solid research foundation, then to pursue and translate discoveries that address the gaps in knowledge about health and disease in women.”
The d’Arbeloff Center will create synergies and collaborations among Whitehead Institute investigators and facilities and those at biomedical research organizations throughout the Boston region, across the nation, and around the world. Leveraging the knowledge gained by the Initiative’s investigations into the molecular mechanisms through which the X and Y chromosomes give rise to sex-specific differences in cells, tissues, and organs, the Center will delve into the ways that those differences contribute to conditions of health and of disease in women. It will also pursue partnerships to translate and develop meaningful discoveries into clinical applications for diagnosing, preventing, and treating disease in women.
d’Arbeloff, a member of the Institute’s board of directors since 2008, says, “I have long marveled at the stream of scientific discoveries and technical advances by Whitehead Institute researchers. I view the Sex Differences Initiative as an essential biomedical quest, one as challenging today as the Human Genome Project was in 1991. And no institution is better positioned to lead it than Whitehead Institute.
“In creating the Center for Women’s Health, I cannot make a more important investment in the health of my grandchildren and their children. And I have very concrete hopes: I want the Center to help ensure that biomedical research reflects and benefits all of humanity—women and men, young and old.”