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Women Are Not Differently Shaped Men

October 14, 2019
Photo by Harold Shapiro
In 1998, Carolyn Mazure, PhD, founded WHRY, which has established Yale as a leader in studying the health of women and the influence of sex and gender on health outcomes.

For over 20 years, Women’s Health Research at Yale (WHRY) has been leading the transformation of science to study women in medical research and better understand the influence of sex and gender on health and disease. In advancing this mission, WHRY exemplifies the principles of research and education in the service of caring for patients for which Yale School of Medicine is known.

While other such centers typically focus on one or two major areas, WHRY, established and led by Carolyn M. Mazure, PhD, pursues a breadth of projects and brings together researchers from a variety of disciplines. As one of the first centers of its kind in the country, WHRY has placed Yale at the forefront of generating an empirical response that fuels innovation. It has created a national presence, helping to influence public health policy and change how biomedical research is conducted.

The importance of including women in research was not always widely recognized, but since 1994 has been a requirement for studies seeking funding from the National Institutes of Health (NIH). In 2016, the NIH expanded this requirement to include female and male vertebrate animals in laboratory research. As we increasingly recognize that one model of disease doesn’t necessarily apply to all segments of the population, we also recognize the need to include women in research in order to understand how diseases and conditions are influenced by sex and gender. For example, women sometimes experience more side effects from vaccines, are more likely to develop depression and autoimmune diseases, and are more likely to die following a heart attack. It’s important to understand the mechanisms underlying these differences so that we can develop better treatment and prevention strategies. If one type of treatment is more effective in women and an alternative is more effective in men, everyone benefits.

WHRY carries out its work by engaging directly in interdisciplinary science with collaborations among YSM faculty from different fields. This has amplified the school’s influence and reach, leading to a growing number of researchers at Yale and other institutions studying sex and gender differences, as well as treatment approaches for diseases that exclusively or disproportionately affect women. The center has also funded more than 100 pilot projects in the areas of basic, clinical, community, and policy research that have led to further studies in understanding the health of women. Research by the center’s faculty partners from ongoing and completed pilot projects too numerous to mention includes:

  • Employing metabolomics to explore why colon cancer risk is different between men and women
  • Developing a mobile app to reduce intimate partner violence
  • Imaging the brain to understand substance use disorder and the neurobiological effects of cannabis
  • Understanding the molecular route to breast and ovarian cancer involving the tumor-suppressing BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes
  • Establishing a new, precision-based approach to describe and group heart attacks that accounts for the different ways they can develop in women
  • Testing and demonstrating that a behavioral therapy for autism spectrum disorder works better for girls than for boys

In addition to research, WHRY is committed to education in a number of ways. Besides informing the public about the science and clinical implications of sex and gender in disease, the center involves undergraduates and medical students in its research. Work has also begun to incorporate these findings fundamental to biology and behavior into the medical school curriculum. With these efforts, WHRY is helping to guide a national movement to shape the next generation of clinicians and scientists and ensure that they take into account sex and gender differences in their research and clinical care. I encourage you to find ways to get involved with this forward-looking center.