Everything physicians and investigators know about medicine, from which drugs to prescribe to how to perform surgeries, is based on research. But for decades, most of this work has left out female participants. This means experts don’t have much to rely on when trying to understand how some drugs and treatments affect women.
Investigators discussed why basic science and clinical research must represent female and male participants and offered advice for landing grants during the fourth annual Center for Research in Women’s Health and Sex Differences (CREWHS) symposium, which was held on March 14 at Cedars-Sinai.
Even with a National Institutes of Health (NIH) requirement that NIH-funded clinical trials include women, there is much catching up to do when it comes to establishing data on women’s health and sex differences, speakers at the symposium emphasized.
“We need to learn a lot more about women, so that is our overarching goal,” said Sarah Kilpatrick, MD, PhD, the Helping Hand of Los Angeles Chair in Obstetrics and Gynecology at Cedars-Sinai. “And, specifically, we want to do that here at Cedars-Sinai.”
Kilpatrick encouraged early career investigators to apply for CREWHS grants that will allow them to conduct preliminary research and increase their chances of landing a larger NIH grant. Kilpatrick, a co-founder of CREWHS, pointed out that 90% of funds raised by the center go to support research. Since launching four years ago, CREWHS has funded 12 projects related to women’s health.
The symposium’s keynote speaker was Caroline Whitacre, PhD, senior vice president for research at the Ohio State University and a leading researcher of autoimmune diseases. Whitacre gave a synopsis of discoveries related to how men and women are affected differently by autoimmune diseases such as multiple sclerosis.
These disparities raise additional, pressing research questions, according to Whitacre.
“We have a paradox in that women have greater prevalence of autoimmune disease yet show disease improvement during periods of high hormone levels,” she said “Another paradox is that men have higher disease progression. How do we reconcile these seemingly different results?”
As an example of the impact that research on women’s health can make, Whitacre noted that doctors used to tell women with multiple sclerosis to avoid getting pregnant because they assumed pregnancy would exacerbate their disease. That advice changed once research showed that pregnancy does not worsen multiple sclerosis and can even improve it during certain periods.
Several investigators presented their findings on sex differences as part of the symposium’s Lightning Talks competition, which offers a monetary award for best project. Scott Kelly, PhD, a project scientist in the laboratory of Shouri Lahiri, MD, won this year’s award for his presentation on how treatment with the hormone estrogen improves delirium caused by urinary tract infections in laboratory mice.
Following the research presentations, Graciela Gonzalez-Hernandez, PhD, vice chair of research and education in the Department of Computational Biomedicine at Cedars-Sinai, described her work in building systems that analyze social media posts created by pregnant women. These systems can help investigators make connections between events that occur during pregnancy and adverse birth outcomes.
Symposium attendees also received advice on how to apply for NIH grants and design research programs from Joshua Pevnick, MD, associate professor of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences at Cedars-Sinai, and Marcio Diniz, PhD, research associate professor of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences at Cedars-Sinai.
The event ended with a panel of Cedars-Sinai experts discussing how to incorporate sex or gender in grant applications to enhance success. The panelists included Gonzalez Hernandez; Margareta Pisarska, MD, director of the Division of Reproductive Endocrinology and Infertility; Jeffrey Golden, MD, vice dean of Research and Research Education; and Sandra Duarte, DVM, executive director of Comparative Medicine.
Caroline Jefferies, PhD, scientific director of CREWHS, said she hopes the symposium raises awareness about the need to conduct women’s health and sex differences research.
“The point is to bring investigators from various disciplines together to have conversations around why we need to do this,” she said.
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