Posted by on September 28, 2010 - 1:48pm

A new report by the Institute of Medicine issued on Sept. 23, concludes that there has been some progress in women's health over the past two decades especially in lessening the burden of disease and reduced deaths among women in the areas of cardiovascular disease, breast cancer and cervical cancer, specifically. The effort has yielded less but still significant progress in reducing the effects of depresssion, HIV/AIDS, and osteoporosis in women.   However, the report also identifies several areas that are important to women that have seen little progress, namely, unintended pregnancy, autoimmune disease, alcohol and drug addiction, lung cancer, and dementia.

Overall, few gains have been made on chronic and debilitating conditions that cause significant suffering but have lower death rates, pointing to the need for researchers to give quality of life similar consideration as mortality for research attention.  The report also points out that barriers such as socio-economic and cultural influences still limit the potential reach and impact of research developments, especially among disadvantaged women.

Several observations made by the experts who wrote the report are in areas the Institute for Women's Health Research at Northwestern has raised as ongoing problems.   One of those issues is the the fact that many research projects, even if they include both men and women, rarely report the results by sex.   Furthermore, as pointed out in a recent paper in Nature, written by IWHR director, Teresa Woodruff, PhD, and her graduate students, scientific journals should require authors to include sex data in their publications.

Another challenge discussed in the report is how best to communicate complex research findings to the public and the media.   The IWHR through it blog, website and monthly e-newsletters is striving to meet that challenge.

Over the next month or so, this blog will discuss issues in the IOM report in greater detail but in the meantime click HERE to read the press release,  the entire report on line or to order a copy.

Posted by on September 17, 2010 - 9:02am

An understanding why women experience more stress-related mental disorders like depression and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) has eluded scientists but a new study in rat brains may help explain why women are more prone to mood and anxiety disorders than men.

In order to better understand this study, I found it helpful to look up a few key definitions:

  • stressor:   a stimulus that causes stress, can be physical, emotional or social
  • hormone:  a secretion of an endocrine gland that is transmitted by the blood to the tissue on which it has an effect
  • neurotransmitter:   a chemical that transmits signals from a neuron (nerve system cell) to a cell across an empty space called a "synapse"
  • receptor:   a protein molecule embedded in either the membrane or cytoplasm of a cell, to which one or more specific kinds of signaling molecules, such as a neurotransmitter or hormone may attach. Each cell typically has many receptors, of many different kinds.

Now, back to the study:

Corticotropin releasing factor (CRF), which acts as both a hormone and a neurotransmitter, is likely a key player.   In response to a stressor, CRF binds to receptors on cells in an alarm center deep in the brainstem, called the locus ceruleus.   This telegraphs heightened emotional arousal throughout the brain via the chemical messenger norepinephrine.   Such hyper-arousal can be adaptive for brief periods, but not if it becomes chronic.   Runaway CRF is a core feature of depression.

Previous studies suggested that this alarm system is more sensitive to CRF and stress in the female brain and researchers at Children's Hospital in Philadelphia developed an experiment to see how CRF receptors responded in male versus female rats, both unstressed and after exposure to a stressor (in this case, a swim).

Even in the absence of any stress, the researchers found the female stress signaling system to be more sensitive from the start.   CRF receptors had stronger connections or coupling in the female rats, so it took lower levels of CRF to activate proteins in the unstressed females compared to males.    CRF levels that had no effect in males turned on cells in female rats.

After stress, CRF receptors remained exposed on the neuronal membranes in the female rat, maintaining the CRF effect.   In the stressed male, the CRF receptors interacted with proteins in the cell that enabled some of the them to retreat and not be available to couple to the CRF.  This helped the male brain adapt its sensitivity to the stressor and thus the stress response was less than in the females.

What is the significance of this experiment?   Certain brain cells in females are more sensitive to CRF  and less able to adapt to too much CRF than male brain cells.

The next step is to examine the male and female CRF receptors for structural differences that might account for the functional differences (e.g., response to stress, depression).   Since most rodent models of mood and anxiety disorders use male animals exclusively, the new findings of sex differences in stress signaling mechanisms call for a more sex- and gender-balanced approach---especially for mental disorders that disproportionately affect females.   This sex-difference should also be factored in as medication treatments based on blocking CRF receptor are developed, say the researchers.

Source: Sex differences in corticotropin-releasing factor receptor signaling and trafficking:   potential role in female vulnerability to stress-related psychopathology.  Mol Psychiatry. 2010 Jun 15. (PMID:  20548297)

Posted by on September 13, 2010 - 2:28pm

The National Institutes of Health Office of Research on Women's Health (ORWH) will celebrate its 20th anniversary with a day-long symposium on Monday, Sept. 27, in Bethesda, Maryland.  Discussed will be highlights of early accomplishments in women's health research, as well as a preview of the next decade A Vision for the Year 2020. Many of the advances involve medical differences between women and men, and implications for sex/gender — appropriate clinical care and personalized medicine.

A keynote speaker will be former NIH Director Bernadine Healy, M.D., who launched the Women's Health Initiative (WHI), a $625-million effort to study the causes, prevention, and cures of diseases that affect women at midlife and beyond. The WHI study continues to uncover critical information, including recent evidence that combined hormone replacement therapy carries a greater risk for heart attack and stroke than previously thought, particularly in older women.

The scientific keynoter will be Linda G. Griffith, Ph.D., professor and chair of MIT's Biological and Mechanical Engineering Department. She will discuss the integration of tissue engineering and systems biology in women's health research.   A scheduled guest speaker in the afternoon is actress Cicely Tyson, who won three Emmy Awards and was nominated for an Academy Award for her portrayals of strong, positive African-American women. Her women's medical research interests include high blood pressure, heart disease and stroke, especially in minority patients. Her acting career, begun in 1957, remains active. This will be her first visit to the NIH campus.

The free and open symposium will conclude with a reception honoring many of the women and men who are heroes of women's health research. For more details, visit or call ORWH at 301-402-1770.

Posted by on July 13, 2010 - 4:11pm

A recent post on the Oncofertility Consortium Blog discussed gender disparities in the senior levels of scientific research. Women receive 56% of science and engineering undergraduate degrees and are awarded more than 40% of graduate degrees in the sciences, often a PhD. However, they make up only 22% of senior academic faculty members in the United States.

The Journal Nature may have come across another reason for the gender gap in science. Salary differences. Nature just released the results of their first-ever salary and career survey of more than 10,000 scientists. In addition to examining salaries across countries, academic stages, and industry, the study also looked across genders.

The report found that female scientists begin their post-graduate careers making slightly more than male scientists, about $45,000 per year in the United States. However, 5 years after receiving their highest degree, when scientists generally begin their first academic appointments, male scientists start to outpace females. As time progresses, this trend continues so that 16 or more years past degree completion, men make about $120,000 while female scientists hover below $105,000.

It is important to note that similar salary trends occur in both North America and Europe. According to the study, “Men’s salaries were 18% to 40% higher than women’s in the countries for which we had significant sample sizes-Australia, Germany, Italy, Spain, the United Kingdom, India, Japan, Canada, and the United States.”

The exact cause of the scientific wage gap is unknown. However, in my previous career as a scientist, I personally saw women poorly negotiate for starting salaries, producing an initial wage difference that increased over time. In addition, some of my fellow female scientists either took time off from work to raise children or opted for more-flexible, lower-paying, non-tenured positions. In my case, which occurs with many women, I foresaw that my significant other would make more money the long-term and saw myself sacrificing my career for our future family. In my transition away from the bench, I have instead avoided the “sex, science, and salary” issue altogether but the scientific community needs to learn how to keep women in the sciences or risk future scientific and medical advances. The most obvious way to do that? Money.


Kate is on loan from the Oncofertility Consortium. Check out their blog!

Posted by on August 10, 2009 - 3:03pm

Currently 4% of women enrolled in the Illinois Womens Health Registry suffer from this skin condition that causes itchy or sore red patches of skin with silvery scales.

Psoriasis occurs when the normal life cycle of skin cells is accelerated by the immune system, causing buildup of dead skin cells, which form the thick, silvery scale-like appearance.  There are several types of psoriasis, the most common of which include Plaque Psoriasis, causing the red, scaly lesions; Scalp Psoriasis; Nail Psoriasis, causing abnormal nail growth; and Psoriatic Arthritis, causing stiffness and progressive joint damage.  For many people, psoriasis is just a nuisance, however patients usually seek medical advice if their psoriasis causes discomfort and pain, interferes with daily tasks, or causes concern about the appearance of skin.  There is no cure for psoriasis, but many treatments exist to interrupt the overproduction of skin cells and to provide significant relief.

Resources at Northwestern for Psoriasis:

Northwestern Memorial Hospital’s Department of Dermatology offers state-of-the-art treatment options for dermatology conditions such as psoriasis.  The department also provides cosmetic treatments to patients with various dermatological symptoms.  Treatment options include laser surgery, microdermabrasion, camouflage makeup, skin peels and phototherapy (PUVA).

The Department of Dermatology at Northwestern’s Feinberg School of Medicine runs a Psoriasis and Psoriatic Arthritis Clinic on Tuesday mornings.  The clinic is headed by Prashant Singri, MD from dermatology and by Eric Ruderman, MD from Rheumatology.  The clinic is ideal for patients with both psoriasis and psoriatic arthritis.

For more information or to schedule an appointment, contact the clinic at 312-695-8106.

Northwestern Physicians/Researchers Specializing in Psoriasis Treatment:
The Department of Dermatology at Feinberg School of Medicine has active areas of laboratory and clinical outcomes research.  Nearly all of the clinical faculty in the department serve as principle investigators in clinical trials.  Dr. Amy Paller, Chair of the Northwestern Department of Dermatology and Professor of Pediatrics conducts laboratory research related to Psoriasis and other hyper-proliferative skin disorders.  Also conducting research involving psoriasis is Dr. Prashant Singri, head of the Psoriasis clinic.

IWHR Highlighted Researcher
Dr. Anne Laumann, MBChB, MRCP (UK), FAAD is an Associate Professor of Dermatology in the Feinberg School of Medicine.  She is an active member of many dermatology organizations including the American Academy of Dermatology, the Society of Investigative Dermatology, the Scleroderma Foundation, the Vitiligo Foundation, and the Psoriasis Foundation.  Dr. Laumann is the principal investigator on a number of clinical trials related to Raynaud’s phenomenon, psoriasis, and itching. Currently she is conducting clinical trials to evaluate the use of different medications for the treatment of active secondary Raynaud’s disease. She is the local principal investigator in a study studying the outcome and safety of the use of infliximab and golimumab in patients with chronic moderate to severe plaque psoriasis.  This study is a multicenter, prospective, 8-year surveillance study involving patients on biologics.

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