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HIV prevention, breast cancer genetics among topics for 2013 Women’s Health Research Pilot Grants

June 20, 2013

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Supporting promising new research designed to uncover solutions to health conditions affecting women today is the goal of Women’s Health Research at Yale’s Pilot Project Program. The four projects selected for funding this year target:

  • HIV prevention, as HIV is far more prevalent among young black women than other young women.
  • Breast cancer, the second leading cause of cancer deaths among women.
  • Autoimmune diseases, more common in women than men, including antiphosphololipid antibody syndrome, (or APS), which can cause stroke, heart attack, and pregnancy-related problems, and lupus.
  • Sexually transmitted viral infections that affect more women than men and currently have no cure or intervention to prevent recurring outbreaks.

“As with all of our pilot grants since our founding 15 years ago, the investigations by this year’s awardees are designed to generate findings that can be translated as soon as possible into practical benefits for women affected by or at risk for serious health conditions that are unique or more prevalent in women,” said Carolyn M. Mazure, director of Women’s Health Research at Yale.

The recipients of Women’s Health Research at Yale’s 2013 pilot grants are:

  • Kimberly D. Hieftje, associate research scientist, and Dr. Lynn E. Fiellin, associate professor, both of internal medicine. Taking advantage of contemporary technologies to communicate with and among young people, Hieftje and Fiellin will develop a prototype for a social media video designed to promote prevention of human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) transmission among young black women (18 to 24 years old). This population has far higher rates of acquiring HIV and sexually transmitted infections than other young women. The investigators will conduct focus groups with young black women in New Haven to understand barriers to avoiding risk and how these women engage their friends and social networks to gain support for taking steps to reduce risk. Hieftje and Fiellin will then use this community input to create the prototype for a video game to increase HIV awareness, promote safe sex practices, and encourage partner testing for HIV. The ultimate goal is to develop an appealing video game that young black women will play using a mobile device “app” or via computer download on a social network, making the game widely available to maximize public health benefit.
  • Ryan B. Jensen, assistant professor of therapeutic radiology. Genetic tests for BRCA or breast cancer susceptibility gene mutations are becoming widely available. While certain mutations have been specifically linked to cancer risks, these genetic tests are increasingly showing thousands of mutations and variations that have not been characterized. The standard of care for women with harmful BRCA mutations, known to dramatically increase cancer risk, can involve preventive double mastectomy. However, when genetic tests show mutations not yet known to be definitively linked to cancer risks, these ambiguous findings leave patients and health care providers with no clear options. Capitalizing on the latest biochemical, analytical tools, Jensen will characterize a multitude of BRCA variations and mutations. His ultimate goal is to develop a high-speed test, a biochemical assay, to distinguish between harmful mutations and innocuous, routinely occurring genetic variations. This test is expected to be invaluable in guiding decisions for patients who undergo genetic tests, and potentially for designing new treatments to specifically target tumor cells related to BRCA mutations.
  • Dr. Martin Kriegel, assistant professor of immunobiology and internal medicine. An autoimmune disease called antiphospholipid antibody syndrome (APS) is more common in women than men, and highly prevalent in patients with other autoimmune disorders that are more common in women, such as lupus. The immune system in APS makes antibodies that lead to the formation of blood clots that can cause stroke, heart attack, deep vein thrombosis, and pregnancy-related problems, such as recurring miscarriages or premature birth. While the cause of APS is unknown, patients typically are treated lifelong with anti-clotting medications with adverse side effects that include bleeding. Kriegel hypothesizes that normally benign bacteria in the digestive tract trigger the production of the harmful antibodies in APS patients. His preliminary data from laboratory work has identified a possible antibody-producing trigger among a vast array of different bacteria. Now, in what is believed to be the first study to identify such triggers among APS patients, Kriegel will determine which bacteria may be at the root of the disease. His ultimate goal is to identify biomarkers for development of new diagnostic and treatment options to target and stop initiation of the antibodies rather than mitigating the harmful effects of antibodies after production.

A Yale Rheumatic Diseases Research Core Center award to the Section of Rheumatology, Department of Medicine is funding the study by Kriegel in conjunction with Women’s Health Research at Yale.

  • Akiko Iwasaki, professor of immunobiology. Genital herpes, caused by the herpes simplex virus (HSV-2), is a global health threat affecting a fifth of women worldwide and is more common in women than men. Currently, there is no cure and no therapy to prevent or control recurring symptoms or transmission of the virus, which can cause fatalities in children if transmitted from the mother during birth. In addition to a physical burden, women with the infection bear a social and emotional burden, as many feel they cannot marry or bear children as a result of this disease. Iwasaki will develop a two-step “prime and pull” intervention for controlling recurrence of the infection. In laboratory models, she will test a potential vaccine, designed to prevent initial onset of genital herpes, as a method in the first step to activate or “prime” anti-viral immune cells to combat already established genital herpes. These anti-viral cells will be recruited to the infection site in the second step via the use of a vaginal ring. The ring will be coated with particular proteins that will “pull” the anti-viral cells to the infection site to establish and prolong the cells’ presence for greater protective effect.

Women’s Health Research at Yale was founded in 1998 to address historic gender disparities in medical research by initiating and supporting innovative studies on women’s health and gender differences in health. Since inception, the center has awarded more than $4.4 million in annual pilot grants to more than 60 Yale investigators who have used their results to obtain nearly $50 million in new external grants to further their work.

Submitted by Claire M. Bessinger - Van Graan on June 20, 2013