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Posted: August 05, 2005

Spiritual Caregiving

We Really Do Come from Venus and Mars -- Down to Our Genes

As a lab technician swings open the door to an industrial freezer, dry-ice vapors pour out and swirl around her like a slow-moving cloud. It’s as cold as the polar ice cap in there: minus 150 degrees. She sticks a gloved hand inside, quickly pulls out a rack of test tubes containing hundreds of frozen samples of human tissue, and double-checks the origins: someone’s brain, liver, kidney, heart.

Once the tubes are labeled, she sends them to another lab next door, where a tiny vibrating drill pulverizes their contents into a fine reddish dust resembling cayenne powder. A special liquid is added to separate out the tissue’s genetic gold: its DNA.

Then, as impossible as it may sound, the liquefied DNA is replicated, squirted across a computer chip, washed, cleaned, and, finally, baked into the chip in an oven of sorts.

The endpoint to all this medical wizardry, pioneered by the biotechnology firm GeneLogic in Gaithersburg, Maryland, is a laser-read computer chip that creates a complex chart made up of vibrant, luminescent dots looking a lot like van Gogh’s Starry Night. Each patch of color indicates not just whether a specific gene is present, but whether it is turned on or off, and to what degree (there are at least 39,000 genes in each of us).

Because genes are like the brain behind the brain, telling every cell exactly what it should or should not be doing, medical researchers and major pharmaceutical companies are using the data to examine the invisible roots of disease in their search for new cures.

This mind-bendingly complex process also, quite by accident, underscores gender medicine’s simple but profound claim: The cellular and molecular blueprints for women and men are more different than we ever imagined. When the computer compares the genetic maps embedded in female and male tissue, they look nothing alike, whether they are healthy or diseased. Our genes are arrayed in different places and concentrations in the body. We are either from Mars or Venus, right down to our bones and our blood.

By comparing sex-specific tissue, can this data help scientists understand why illnesses are manifested in women and men in different ways, or why one sex is more or less prone to a certain kind of disease, and why one survives at a higher rate?

Are the clues buried in our DNA, as geneticists claim? It appears so. Take cigarettes: Women, given the same exposure to tobacco as men, are twice as likely to develop lung cancer, and a more lethal form of it as well, according to a December 2003 study. GeneLogic researchers can tell you why: The genes that activate an enzyme that protects the lungs by breaking down the carcinogens in smoke is active in men. In women, it isn’t.

The same genetic disparity can be found across a range of diseases, including heart disease. Jeff Cossman, vice president and medical director of GeneLogic, says that they recently discovered a possible explanation: the profile of active genes in heart muscles is significantly different for men and women.

Sherry Marts, Ph.D., offers another, simpler way of looking at this issue with your own eyes: "Draw my blood, separate out my white blood cells, and put them in a dish. Do the same with a man’s. Put bacteria in both dishes, get a microscope, and compare. You’ll see that my cells will react differently than his. Before, no one knew it would make a difference because no one ever bothered to look."

For a list of resources, go to


Louise Danielle Palmer is the deputy editor of Spirituality & Health. She also contributes to a range of national magazines and newspapers, and is a former staff political writer at the Boston Globe, as well as a nationally syndicated feature writer for Newhouse Newspapers.

This article originally appeared in Spirituality & Health magazine, For subscriptions call 1-800-876-8202 or see Editor Stephen Kiesling and his staff contribute weekly columns, features and articles published every Friday as "Spiritual Caregiving" at Contact staff directly via email at

© 2005 Pederson Publishing, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
Commercial use, redistribution or other forms of reuse of this information is strictly prohibited without the prior written permission of Pederson Publishing.

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