Posted by on July 21, 2009 - 10:12am

This recent article from the BBC discusses how the practice of stranger kidney donations has been increasing in the United Kingdom since it was made legal in 2006. Just to be clear, this refers to kidney donations while the donor is still alive and wherethe donor and recipient don’t know each other. The entire practice seems kind of fascinating to me. Although I carry my donor card around with me and have registered with the National Bone Marrow Registry, I don’t know if I could ever donate an organ to a stranger while I’m still alive.


I wondered who exactly these donors were, what might instill that kind of altruism, and if gender dynamics might play a role. It turns out, according to this article published in Medicine, Health Care, and Philosophy that gender plays a pretty big role in living organ donation. Apparently, women are much more likely to be living organ donors, making up 58% of kidney donors compared to men’s 42%. At the same time, women are less likely to receive a kidney. These statistics can’t be explained by the thinking that maybe more men need kidneys, so their wives donate more often, because women are also more likely to donate to strangers and non-relatives and more likely to donate to their children and siblings, even when the recipient’s male relative (father or brother) is also a match.
According to a 2008 German study (can be downloaded here), women are also much more likely to be in favor of the idea of donating organs than men are, even if they don't have an organ donor card (in pretty much all cases, whether they are living or dead at the time of donation and whether the recipient is either a distant relatives or stranger). Interestingly, women are also much more likely to be disapproving of proposals of financial compensation for organs than men, who approve such proposals by a large majority.

So what makes women so much more willing to donate their organs? We’ve all heard the psychological behavioral studies that show that, in general, women are more empathetic and altruistic than men, and many of these studies are referenced in the first paper linked above. It does seem to me that society tells women that to be successful as women, they must excel at being caregivers, to their children, significant others, and their community at large. It seems that this conditioning could be a large part of why women donate more often. On the flipside, maybe men are prevented from donating as often as women. This could be because they are traditional breadwinners of the family, and therefore don’t think the risk or leave from work required for the surgery is worthwhile. There is also the fact that men are more likely to fear that having an organ donor card could mean that they get inadequate medical care (doctors might not fight so hard to save his life if his organs are desperately needed.)1

What do you think? Would you donate an organ while alive? Would the identity of the recipient influence your decision at all? Do you think your identity as a woman affects your feelings on the issue?

  • 1. Thompson T.L.; Robinson J.D.; Kenny R.W. “Gender Differences in Family Communication About Organ                   Donation.” Sex Roles, Volume 49, Numbers 11-12, 200312 , pp. 587-596(10)
Posted by on July 17, 2009 - 9:17am

Yes, I'm tooting our own horn - but only because it's pretty darn exciting!  The Institute's very own director Dr. Teresa Woodruff (a.k.a. my esteemed advisor) and members of our lab have been in the news for a research article that was just published online this week.  A major part of our research focuses on developing and improving on methods for three-dimensional culture of  ovarian follicles, the compartments of the ovary which individually house the all-important eggs.  Our lab is hoping to establish this technique as a new option in women's fertility preservation, which currently consists of methods such as freezing of ovarian tissue or performing emergency IVF.  We will definitely post more on fertility preservation in the near future since it is becoming an important decision for an increasing number of women and the Institute is within a hub of fertility preservation not only in research, but also in clinical practice.

But for now, I'll post a couple news articles about the lab's recent accomplishments here and expand in future posts.  Enjoy (and don't forget to post your comments)!

Posted by on July 16, 2009 - 10:23pm

While browsing through Facebook status updates earlier today, I noticed that two friends independently posted a link to this op-ed on the New York Times website, written by blogger Nicholas D. Kristof.  Mr. Kristof posted his thoughts on something that has been nagging at us, the consumers, for a while now: chemicals in our plastics that act as so-called endocrine-disrupting chemicals (EDCs).  Simply put, EDCs are imposter molecules that mimic hormones naturally present in our body and therefore interfere with normal biological processes regulated by these hormones.  These affect both men and women but in different ways, as there are notable differences in body chemistry between the sexes.  Perhaps the most infamous EDC is dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane, more commonly known as the pesticide DDT, which has been banned in the U.S. since the 1970s for possible carcinogenicity and reproductive toxicity, among other big no-nos.  You may have also heard of bisphenol A (BPA), which many companies recently stopped incorporating into their products due to its potential toxic effects.  In females, EDCs have been linked to early puberty, breast cancer, uterine fibroids, disrupted lactation among a variety of possible effects.  EDCs are such a hot issue that the Endocrine Society released an extensive report this year summarizing what is known about their effects.  For me, it was provocative to read that the rise in obesity appears to correlate with the rise in industrial chemical use.

There is a scarily extensive list of known EDCs and many of these are, of course, still in use today.  They are everywhere – from the plastic in your water bottle to canned fruit tins to flame retardants to shampoo.  But what does it all mean?  Is my Brita pitcher leeching poison into my water as we speak?  Do I stop washing my hair?  Even as a scientist-in-training, I find it very difficult to organize the bubbling vat of information published by laboratories around the world on a daily (hourly?) basis.  However, one of the biggest lessons I’ve learned in graduate school is to approach scientific results with a healthy dose of skepticism and to ask a lot of questions. Published research on EDCs is a prime target for this skepticism.  My impression is that many labs continue to duel over what exactly a chemical and how much of it will endanger our bodies.  There are lot of "links," "associations" and "correlations," but as a scientific claim is made it is just as quickly shut down by a competing report.  Sometimes researchers will use a much higher dose of a particular chemical than the average person would normally be exposed, exaggerating the risks.  Studies might be done on cells growing in a plate that don’t behave like a normal cell, or on animals whose physiology does not behave or react like a human’s.  This is particularly true for early studies on a new chemical.  As Candace pointed out in her “What is Women’s Health?” entry, there is also the dangerous tendency to universalize a study that was conducted only on a single gender group, age group, ethnicity, or nationality, and so on and so forth.

All the grains of salt aside, I do appreciate the awareness that the media raises regarding the products we purchase, what they might contain, and how they might be harmful.  I think it is also our personal responsibility to be educated about what we choose to believe and question how something came to be stated as fact.  There is certainly no shortage of information out there.  Here are a few links I found useful regarding EDCs:

  • The Environmental Protection Agency’s Endocrine Disruptor Screening Program, which seeks to identify potential EDCs and determine their specific effects at defined doses
  • The Endocrine Society’s full report on EDCs (opens a PDF)
  • Informative fact sheet about BPA from the National Toxicology Program (opens a PDF)

Don't forget to comment on our posts so that we can continue to evolve into a blog that is useful and interesting to you!

Posted by on July 13, 2009 - 11:44am


It might seem kind of obvious, but the real first question about women’s health is, “Who do we categorize as a woman?” Right off the bat, we’d like to state a strong objective to be welcoming and inclusive to all women, including all racial or ethnic groups, transsexual and transgendered individuals, and those who lie across the LGBTQQ spectrum. We will typically use “woman/women” alone to refer to cis-gendered/sexual women, but both the Illinois Women’s Health Registry (if you’re an Illinois resident, join it!) and this blog are looking for active participation from women of all communities. What we don’t want to do is make stories interesting or relevant to only one racial or biological group. There may be no shared female experience, but we can certainly share information and the individual experiences of being female. As readers, please let us know when there are new topics you’d like us to delve into, or when we’ve overlooked something.

When we think of women's health, why do only obvious topics such as reproductive health and breast cancer pop up?  We often forget that there are many health differences between men and women that relate to far more than what is covered by our swimsuits. The Society for Women’s Health Research highlights several less obvious differences concerning healthcare between women and men that may surprise you.  For example, 500,000 American women become victims of heart disease every year, a number 10% larger than the number of men affected every year. Women are also twice as likely as men to suffer another heart attack during the year of the first one. Differences between men and women also exist in mental aspects.  Because a woman's brain typically produces less serotonin than a man’s, women are two-to-three times more likely to experience depression than men.  Women also have very different reactions to medications and drugs than men do.  Surprisingly, women often wake up from anesthesia earlier than men do, and some pain killers tend to be more effective in women than men.

For us, women’s health issues are therefore anything that influences the physical or mental wellbeing of women. We want to continually question the prevailing idea that a 45 year old white male can be the test subject for all of us, that one group’s response to treatments or risk for disease is the same as all other groups. We intend to make women aware of the new technologies or issues that may affect them differently from the men, who currently make up most of research study subjects. We plan to educate women on the importance of participation in their healthcare, providing you with vital information to be able to make the best decisions for you and your family. The goal of this blog is to be an educational resource for information regarding women’s health, but even more so to create a community where women can ask questions and share experiences. We’ll have guest bloggers, sometimes experts from the surrounding hospitals, medical schools and research universities, and sometimes even blogs from the young women (our future scientists, doctors, and policy makers) who work with us about their perspectives on women’s health. So welcome! Please have a look around, learn a bit about us from our bio posts, and start commenting on the stories that affect your health every day!

Posted by on July 9, 2009 - 2:04pm

Since we’ll be pretty regular fixtures around here for a while, we’d like to introduce ourselves, as well. We’re both fourth year graduate students, which means (if all goes according to plan) we’ll be “Dr. So and So” some time in the next year or so. We’re currently both involved in that arduous scientific research that Dr. Bristol-Gould outlined in her bio. Alison is working on a project that looks at how certain metals are important in female reproduction, while Candace is studying how oocytes develop and die in pre-pubertal females. Pretty awesome, we know. We also like karaoke, pop music in any language (we’re currently expanding our stock of Hindi and Korean selections!), and Ryan Reynolds, just to show we’re not JUST science nerds! We will typically post every Friday about the newest stories involving women’s health, but we’re open to ideas, so drop us a comment!

Posted by on June 29, 2009 - 2:48pm

Welcome to the Institute for Women’s Health Research Blog!

Established in November of 2007, the Institute for Women’s Health Research was created at Northwestern University to help accelerate basic science and clinical research that will advance our knowledge of women’s health. Our mission is to increase the women’s health research portfolio at Northwestern University and our clinical affiliates; we focus on 5 ambitious goals to accomplish this mission:

  • To foster research that explores the sex and gender determinants of health and disease with an emphasis on women
  • To encourage interdisciplinary research, diversity inclusiveness and a comprehensive approach to women’s health research
  • To prepare researchers, scientists and clinicians who understand the sex and gender determinants of health and disease; develop leadership among women and girls interested in science
  • To accelerate the translation of basic science research into clinical practice
  • To become the authoritative resource for the community on women’s health issues and provide opportunities for the community to engage in the advancement of women’s health

Please check back soon, we will be updating often and we welcome feedback!   What do you think are the top issues related to women's health?