Women’s History Month 2013 – research mission

March 20, 2013 College 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 on InfoScope during the month of March. The vignettes highlight some of our women faculty, staff and students and the contributions they have made. The stories highlight MCW programs that improve women’s health or help develop women students, physicians, researchers, educators and leaders.

The third story in the series features MCW research programs that address women’s health issues. All of the vignettes and stories will be added to the College's Women's History Month 2013 Web page as they are published.

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

Some of the current research efforts within the program include:

  • Determining if developing ER-α36 (an estrogen receptor) as a novel molecular target for HER2 (human epidermal growth factor receptor 2, a protein that appears on the surface of some breast cancer cells) positive breast cancer can have a significant clinical impact
  • Attempting to improve chemotherapeutic response among women with serous epithelial ovarian cancer using personalized medicine
  • To compare the reasons behind pregnant women who accept with those who decline vaccination with the goal of identifying factors that best predict a pregnant woman’s decision to decline the influenza vaccine
  • Understanding how CREBBP (CREB binding protein, which is involved in activating transcription) and its downstream elements can be used as prognostic biomarkers and therapeutic targets, with the ultimate goal of improving outcomes of women with high-grade serous ovarian cancer.

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, 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. Another area of research has investigated the incidence of lymphedema and risk factors for developing lymphedema after surgery among women with breast cancer.

In yet another important area of research impacting women, investigators have focused on improving the processes and outcomes of communication after newborn screening. These studies assess the quality of communication between physicians and mothers after a newborn screening test identifies genetic carrier status for sickle cell disease or cystic fibrosis.

More information on these and other PCOR research activities can be found on their Web site.

Basic science research efforts

MCW researchers are conducting numerous basic science studies to look at diseases more prevalent in women. Two of those studies include:

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 and hopefully lead to improved therapeutic use of these types of drugs in patients with recalcitrant tumors.

Determining the impact of estrogen on pulmonary arterial hypertension

Pulmonary arterial hypertension (PAH) is high blood pressure specific to the arteries of the lungs and can lead to heart failure if left untreated. While PAH affects people of all ages, races and ethnic backgrounds, studies reported that being female increases the risk of certain types of PAH.  Mechanisms to explain the increased risk in females are lacking but are likely related to the production of factors that cause blood vessels to have greater vascular tone and therefore elevated pressure. 

Research conducted at MCW discovered that arteries in the lungs of female rabbits have an increased expression of a protein that makes a specific lipid mediator called 15-HETE.  15-HETE enhances pulmonary vascular contractions more in females compared to males.  Treatment of male arteries with the female sex hormone, estrogen, increases 15-HETE synthesis and vascular contractions. Further understanding of how estrogen up-regulates the 15-HETE pathway and contributes to elevated pressure in the lung of females may lead to more effective therapeutic interventions to treat PAH in both men and women.

Female athlete triad research

The Women’s Sports Medicine Program is a leader in the study of the female athlete triad, an interrelated condition of disordered eating, amenorrhea (lack of menstrual periods), and osteoporosis (bone loss). The research team is examining factors that contribute to the development of the syndrome, as well as treatment methods, and have discovered that women with the triad are more likely to suffer from a fourth component – premature heart disease. The study includes an ongoing analysis of female athletes at Divine Savior Holy Angels high school and the Milwaukee Ballet. 

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, colon cancer and osteoporosis in post-menopausal women. It was a pioneering study of women’s health in that women hadn’t previously been uniformly included in important intervention trials.

Over the course of the study, 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. Before the study was completed, it had found that hormone therapy caused an increase in heart attacks among women. This information resulted in millions of women being taken off hormone therapy.

Another important finding was that estrogen plus progestin therapy increased breast cancer.  Estrogen plus progestin also increased the risk for mild cognitive impairment and dementia in women. Further analyses of the data and research papers are still being published from the original study.

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 their sponsoring dealership, Wisconsin Harley Davidson, Inc., in Oconomowoc, have hosted the annual "Ridin To A Cure" event, which has donated more than $1.975 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 recently established an endowed professorship and named a research laboratory for breast cancer research. A nationally recognized researcher is being recruited and will conduct research at the Medical College’s WBCS Laboratory for Breast Cancer Research. The scientist will hold The WBCS Professorship of Breast Cancer Research. To date, WBCS has invested more than $4.75 million to date for the professorship and to fund breast cancer and prostate cancer research at MCW.

The Women in Science Series was created to showcase outstanding research and provide financial support for women scientists at the Medical College of Wisconsin. 

Women researchers and physicians at the Medical College of Wisconsin are making discoveries that are saving lives and improving treatments for patients with injuries and complex diseases.  The Women in Science series offers subscribers the opportunity to learn about leading-edge research by attending five presentations given by distinguished Medical College of Wisconsin female faculty. In addition, Women in Science provides annual awards given to an outstanding female postdoctoral researcher and an established female scientist who serves as a role model and mentor in the lives of young female scientists.  Both awards are used to expand on the recipient’s research efforts.  This series has been in existence since 2007.