Women’s History Month 2016

Mar. 1, 2016 MCW News - In honor of Women’s History Month, the Medical College of Wisconsin has created a series of video vignettes and stories that will be posted online during the month of March. The vignettes highlight some of our women faculty, staff and students and the contributions they have made. The stories also highlight MCW programs that improve women’s health or help develop female students, physicians, researchers, educators and leaders.

All of the vignettes and stories will be added to the MCW Honoring Diversity Web page as they are published.

This story focuses on our research and community engagement efforts.

Community engagement efforts aimed at improving women’s health

Sharing emerging issues with the broader medical community
The Women’s Health Research Program holds an ongoing seminar and interactive group discussion that brings MCW experts together with diverse groups of researchers, doctors, and other healthcare providers to discuss emerging issues related to women’s health. The program attracts a wide audience from the local healthcare community and MCW’s hospital affiliates.  More than three dozen sessions have been held on topics ranging from maternal outcomes following complications at childbirth, chronic pain, genetics of obesity, toxin exposure in utero, breast cancer prevention, and outcomes following breast cancer care. Please see our website for information on upcoming seminars.

Homeless Outreach in Medical Education
The Medical College of Wisconsin Homeless Outreach in Medical Education (HOME) Project students are medical students with an interest in health of homeless individuals; the project is led by Dr. Sabina Diehr. The HOME Project works with 3 local shelters, including the Milwaukee Women’s Center, to provide medical education classes and other services to the local homeless population. HOME students work with the Milwaukee Women's Center to fulfill its mission, which is to provide holistic care to empower women and families who are experiencing abuse to live safe, independent and healthy lives. Throughout the year, the HOME students lead interactive sessions on women's health (cancer and sexually transmitted infection prevention, healthy pregnancies), nutrition and smoking cessation at the Women’s Center, as well as fitting women and children with free prescription eye glasses.  

Advancing a Healthier Wisconsin – changing lives for the better, throughout the state
Since 2004, the Advancing a Healthier Wisconsin (AHW) endowment has worked in partnership with community partners and MCW faculty, staff, and students to help improve the health of Wisconsin residents. Many initiatives, such as PEARLS for Teen Girls, The Sisters Project, and Salud de la Mujer have focused on improving health outcomes for women and girls.

From its first funding cycle in 2004 through June 2015, AHW has invested more than $186 million in 339 initiatives. These investments have been made in diverse, urban, and rural communities throughout the state. AHW does this through two key programs: the Healthier Wisconsin Partnership Program (HWPP) and the Research and Education Program (REP).

HWPP awards provide a competitive, unique and transformative opportunity for community organizations and MCW academicians to work in partnership to share expertise and address Wisconsin’s greatest health needs.

One such initiative is PEARLS for Teen Girls. This unique leadership development program was created for Milwaukee girls in grades 5-12. The program empowers girls to live out the PEARLS values: Personal Responsibility, Empathy, Awareness, Respect, Leadership and Support.

Austiana Jackson, a PEARLS participant, was recently featured in an AHW video. Hear her story.

Through the REP, the AHW endowment invests in new scientific discoveries and innovative education programs. Many initiatives focus on diseases that primarily affect women, such as breast cancer. AHW has invested in programs assessing cognition among breast cancer survivors, preclinical studies to optimize anti-tumor immune activation against certain types of cancer, and is currently investing in a study researching the role of DIRAS family tumor suppressors in breast cancer.

Through HWPP and REP, the Advancing a Healthier Wisconsin endowment has helped improve the health of Wisconsin’s population, including many initiatives focused on improving health for women and girls. For more information on all of our initiatives, please visit mcw.edu/ahw.

Research efforts aimed at improving women’s health

Women’s Health Research Program
The MCW Women’s Health Research Program (WHRP) leverages the expertise of existing Medical College of Wisconsin physicians and scientists, hospital partners and affiliated community organizations to improve the health of women from conception to end-of-life by:  improving reproductive and fetal health, developing fertility research, post-menopausal women’s health issues and development of a world class gynecologic cancer research program.

Gynecologic Oncology and Maternal-Fetal-Placental health are our two main areas of focus for future programmatic development. These two groups will focus on team building and long lasting collaborations between basic and physician scientists to solve critical problems in their respective fields.

Some of the current research efforts within the program include:

  • Neuromuscular Function in Women Postpartum
  • A Novel Immunotherapeutic Approach to Fight Ovarian Cancer
  • The Role of the VRK1 Protein Kinase in Female Fertility
  • Interplay of Gender, Ethnicity, and Adiposity Distribution on Cardiovascular Disease and infertility
  • Specifics of Why Pregnant Women Decline Vaccination Against Influenza
  • CREBBP Mutations Predict Relapse of Ovarian Carcinoma and Possible Therapy Strategy
  • Effects of Ascites on the phenotype and chemoresistance alteration of ovarian cancer cell
  • Estrogen Receptor Alpha 36 is a Novel Biomarker to Predict Clinical Outcome for HER2 Positive Breast Cancer Patients
  • Human Placenta Project

Novel Clinical Trials
MCW’s Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology is working diligently to increase the volume and breadth of clinical trials offered to patients. Currently, the department is working on opening trials for women with uterine fibroids and endometriosis. Additionally, one of our gynecologic oncologists received funding to develop and execute an investigator-initiated trial targeting ovarian cancer patients and the study should start in 2016.  A comprehensive listing of current and past Departmental trials and research is available on our website.

Center for Patient Care and Outcomes Research (PCOR)
The Center for Patient Care and Outcomes Research (PCOR) comprises a group of multi-disciplinary investigators with a wide range of clinical backgrounds and research interests, including women’s health issues.

PCOR investigators have pioneered the use of population-based databases to study outcomes of breast cancer care, predictors of quality of care, and the comparative effectiveness of newer therapies for breast cancer. Other work has focused on osteoporosis in women and screening disparities, cardiovascular outcomes with adjuvant endocrine therapy in breast cancer survivors, decision-making processes by both physicians and patients as they relate to fracture prevention, and the pharmacoepidemiology of bony fractures in women being treated for breast cancer. Researchers also have investigated the incidence of lymphedema and risk factors for developing lymphedema after surgery among women with breast cancer and the health impacts of neighborhood environmental characteristics such as green space and residential racial segregation. 

In yet another important area of research impacting women and families, investigators are exploring new patient-centered health information technologies which can facilitate communication and information sharing between patients and healthcare providers and contribute to improving patient/family-centered care in inpatient and outpatient settings.  

Researchers are also studying patient-provider communication about gestational weight gain. 

In addition, research examining how women and their partners make decisions about treatment for infertility is ongoing. PCOR investigators also are contributing to national networks working to improve measurement of patient-reported outcomes in the areas of sexual function and lower urinary tract dysfunction, both of which are common issues among women.

For more information, visit the Center for Patient Care and Outcomes Research website.

Basic science research efforts
MCW researchers are conducting basic science studies to look at diseases more prevalent in women. One of those studies is looking at defining the effects of nitric oxide on energy metabolism and tumor growth in breast cancer.  It is now clear that estrogen receptor status is an important prognostic indicator in breast cancer and consequently informs treatment strategies. Breast tumors that do not have estrogen receptors do not respond to many available therapies and are more difficult to treat.  Recent studies have identified nitric oxide synthase, an enzyme that makes the biologically active free radical, nitric oxide, as a predictor of poor outcome in patients with such breast tumors. However, how this enzyme regulates the growth of tumors is not yet known. The goal of the study is to define the effects of nitric oxide on energy metabolism and tumor growth in breast cancer. New chemotherapeutic agents are clearly needed for the treatment of estrogen receptor negative breast tumors, and drugs which target nitric oxide formation and energy metabolism are already in use clinically. This study will identify the consequences of nitric oxide formation in breast cancers, which may lead to improved therapeutic use of these types of drugs in patients with recalcitrant tumors.

Women’s Health Initiative
In the mid-1990s, the Medical College of Wisconsin was selected as a site for the nationwide Women’s Health Initiative, a National Institutes of Health-funded program to look at factors leading to heart disease, breast cancer, colon cancer and osteoporosis in post-menopausal women. It was a pioneering study of women’s health in that women hadn’t previously been included uniformly in important many intervention trials.  

Over the course of the study, nearly 4,000 women in the Milwaukee area participated. The study allowed many questions about factors associated with the health of women to be answered. One of these factors was hormone therapy.  At the time, women were routinely prescribed hormone therapy to alleviate symptoms of menopause.  There was also the notion that hormone therapy reduced heart disease in women. The study found that hormone therapy did not prevent heart attacks among women, and actually tended to increase cardiovascular disease in some women.  In addition, important results included the finding that estrogen plus progestin therapy increased breast cancer, mild cognitive impairment and dementia in women.  This information resulted in millions of women being taken off hormone therapy.

Further analyses of the data and research papers are still being published from the original study, and the study continues to provide important information about the health of older women.

Philanthropic support for research focused on women’s health and women researchers
The Medical College of Wisconsin partners with several organizations to raise funds to support research focused on women’s health issues, including the Rock River Cancer Research Foundation, Inc., and WBCS, Inc. 

The Rock River Cancer Research Foundation, Inc. raises funds through donations and contributions from events.  The proceeds raised support grants for breast cancer research in southeastern Wisconsin. Since 1994, the Rock River HOG Chapter and its sponsoring dealership, Wisconsin Harley Davidson, Inc., in Oconomowoc, have hosted the annual "Ridin To A Cure" event, which has donated more than $2.1 million in grants to the Medical College of Wisconsin breast cancer research program. 

WBCS, Inc. was founded in 1998 as an all-volunteer organization. Its mission is to support early-stage breast cancer and prostate cancer research at the Medical College of Wisconsin. WBCS funds, raised through a variety of annual events, are distributed to MCW scientists as research venture funds or “seed grants” for breast cancer and prostate cancer research. In addition, WBCS established an endowed professorship which led to the recent recruitment of Hallgeir Rui, MD, PhD, as the WBCS Endowed Chair in Basic Breast Cancer Research at MCW.  To date, WBCS has invested more than $5.8 million for the professorship and to fund breast cancer and prostate cancer research at MCW.

The Women in Science series is a membership program with five enlightening presentations, in lay language, designed to draw attention to scientific research projects at MCW as well as generate support for female scientists who serve as role models and mentors. Women in Science (WIS) provides an opportunity to meet outstanding female scientists and physicians and learn about their cutting-edge research. Now in its 10th year, the successful WIS Series has been going strong since 2007.

Proceeds from the program supports an endowment that funds two annual research awards for female scientists at the Medical College of Wisconsin, including a $10,000 Women Pioneers in Research Award and the $1,000 Edward J. Lennon, MD Award for an Outstanding Woman Postdoctoral Researcher. Please call Natalie Strade, (414) 955-5824, with questions or to sign up. Information is also available on the Women in Science Web page.

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