Until the National Institutes of Health (NIH), America’s largest funder of biomedical research, required scientists to include women in their studies in 1993, it was generally assumed that data gained from clinical research on men would apply to women.
Women’s Health Research at Yale (WHRY), a multidisciplinary program directed by Carolyn M. Mazure, Ph.D., is proving that assumption false. The program, which aims to close the gender gap in biomedical re-search, got its start in 1998 with a $6.5 million, five-year grant from the Patrick and Catherine Weldon Donaghue Medical Research Foundation (see “Yale and Donaghue Partnership Treats Research Advances as a Practical Matter”). The initial grant and subsequent funding provide a source for competitive support of pilot studies focusing on health issues unique to or more common in women, and on sex differences in health and disease.
Women’s health is often equated with reproductive health. But Mazure, professor of psychiatry and associate dean for faculty affairs, says that while reproductive health is an important focus of women’s health, any illness that afflicts women falls under the purview of WHRY.
Researchers funded by WHRY are generating new data on women’s health in studies on a wide range of topics, including breast cancer, osteoporosis and hormone therapy, and they are finding significant gender differences in diverse areas of study, including epilepsy, addiction and heart disease.
“We are broadening the scope of women’s health,” Mazure says, adding that identifying gender differences in health and disease has “benefits for men as well as for women.”
The WHRY strategy of funding pilot studies allows scientists to obtain preliminary data so that they can approach agencies like the NIH for grants to support larger investigations. Women’s health investigators have received a total of $3.9 million in grants from WHRY and have gone on to garner an additional $17.9 million from the NIH and other organizations to further their work. Mazure, an expert on stress, depression and tobacco and drug addiction in women, collaborates with many scholars under the WHRY umbrella.
When the Donaghue Foundation made its 1998 award, it came with a stipulation that WHRY must strive to make practical contributions to women’s health. Mazure says that WHRY increases its impact through public education, offering an informative website (www.yalewhr.org) and producing publications on topics such as bone health and how to interpret research findings reported in the media. Faculty who are associated with the program frequently speak on women’s health topics at large workshops, and at smaller gatherings on request.
Mazure says that WHRY has made a real difference in the careers of the faculty it has supported, sometimes in unexpected ways. When assistant professor of psychiatry Julie K. Staley-Gottschalk, Ph.D., needed a statistician for a neuroimaging study comparing smokers and non-smokers, WHRY agreed to help if Staley-Gottschalk looked for sex differences in her results.
Though she expected to find no such differences, Staley-Gottschalk agreed, and she was surprised to find higher numbers of the brain transporters that regulate serotonin and dopamine in women than in men.
This unexpected result set Staley-Gottschalk on a course of research, now supported by the NIH, to understand sex differences in brain chemistry in male and female smokers. She hopes that her research will help to explain why the nicotine replacement therapies used by smokers do not work as well for women as they do for men.
The influence of WHRY has had “a huge impact on me,” says Staley-Gottschalk. “It has opened my eyes to a new view of science.”