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Northwestern Celebrates New Policies on Gender in Research

Women's Health Research Institute lobbied NIH to change policies

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March 8, 2016

CHICAGO --- U.S. Rep. Jan Schakowsky joined the Women’s Health Research Institute (WHRI) in celebrating recently announced National Institutes of Health (NIH) and Food and Drug Administration policies to include women in basic science and clinical research studies.

“We wanted to make this point – that women’s health is not just about pregnancy and having a child,” said Teresa Woodruff, PhD, director of the WHRI, who moderated the February event. “In the WHRI, we’ve embraced this broad perspective of assuring women that when we say women’s health we mean all of women’s health.”

The new policy (NOT-OD-15-102), which went into effect January 25, instructs scientists to account for the possible role of sex as a biological variable in animal and clinical studies and to factor sex into research designs, analyses and reporting.

“I think this will go down in history as one of the most important changes that will occur in biomedical science at least for the next decade,” said Woodruff, who is also chief of Reproductive Science and Medicine in the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology and the Thomas J. Watkins Memorial Professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology. “The intellectual argument that the biology of sex informs health and therefore matters in all stages of biomedical research is now there.”

She added that the inclusion of sex in basic science research is cost effective, can reduce adverse events that have occurred in the past and accelerates the ability of medical science to target specific populations as healthcare moves toward a model of precision medicine.

Woodruff also acknowledged the leadership of the council and gave an overview of the history of women’s health advocacy at Northwestern, from Marie Curie’s visit to Northwestern in 1921 where she inspired male and female students, to Neena Schwartz, who came to Northwestern in 1974 and founded the Northwestern University Center for Reproductive Science.

WHRI group

The Women’s Health Research Institute’s Leadership Council hosted a special celebration of the recently announced policies to include women in basic science and clinical studies.

Woodruff spoke about launching the Women’s Health Research Institute in 2007 to stimulate research on health issues that affect women throughout their life and to create the Illinois Women’s Health Registry to provide a pool of potential study subjects for researchers. Nearly 7,000 women are now registered.

“From the beginning, our institute’s mission has been to facilitate and advocate for the inclusion of sex as a variable in all institutional research by bringing the best minds together to advance the field of sex-based biology,” Woodruff said.

The forum also included a video message from Janine Clayton, MD, director of the NIH Office of Research on Women’s Health, and a brief talk by Jay Walsh, PhD, vice president for research at Northwestern University.

“I look forward to watching, over the rest of my career, the results that will come out because of this new notice from the NIH, that would not have come out if there hadn’t been such leadership that exists in women’s health,” Walsh said.

Schakowsky noted the importance of women in leadership to make a difference in women’s health and touched on gender differences including heart disease symptoms and medication dosage.

“I’m so happy to be here today for a celebration, and I say that in the context of what I see as an unprecedented attack on women’s health, particularly on reproductive health,” Schakowsky said. “What this victory illustrates is when women are in leadership, it really makes a difference.… This is a huge moment for women in medical research but also in understanding how we can make a difference in the lives of half the population in the world.”

Building on sex differences in medicine, Sarah Wimberly Kinsinger, PhD, assistant professor of Medicine in the Division of Gastroenterology and Hepatology and of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, gave a lecture focused on behavioral treatments for women with irritable bowl syndrome. She explained that there is a two-to-one prevalence of IBS in women compared to men, explained the differences in how symptoms are presented in women and addressed the need for more research into the mechanisms that account for those differences.

Sarah Sutton, MD, assistant professor of Medicine in the Division of Infectious Diseases, felt inspired by the event.

“I am inspired by Dr. Woodruff and Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky because they really walked the walk and worked hard for improving the condition for all people,” Dr. Sutton said.

Sarah Plumridge wrote this story.

Topics: Research