This week officially marks Women’s Health Week, but at the Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation scientists are working year-round to address the health and wellness of women.
OMRF scientist Hong Chen, Ph.D., studies angiogenesis with a specific emphasis on breast cancer. Angiogenesis is the formation of new blood vessels that, while necessary in the normal function of the vascular system, are also a key component of cancer.
“A blood vessel is like a highway bringing nutrients to a tumor,” said Chen. “Without access to the blood vessel, it would be much more difficult for the cancer to grow or metastasize.”
In Chen’s lab, researchers are looking at a process that could suppress the protein responsible for angiogenesis in active tumor vessels. While the focus currently centers on breast cancer, Chen said there’s hope the research could be used to fight angiogenesis in other types of cancer.
Susan Kovats, Ph.D., is working to discover the role estrogen plays in the immune system, specifically in regard to the autoimmune disease lupus.
In lupus, the body’s immune system becomes overactive and mistakes its own tissue for foreign invaders. The resulting inflammation can harm any part of the body, but common targets are the skin, joints and kidneys. Women are nine times more likely to have lupus than men.
“Patients who have lupus usually get it between puberty and menopause—times when the female body is producing a steady supply of the hormone,” said Kovats. “That isn’t to say that estrogen is the cause of the disease, but we definitely think it plays a role.”
Estrogen is a factor in several biological systems, so eliminating or suppressing the hormone could have adverse effects. In fact, many researchers believe estrogen protects the heart, Kovats said.
“There’s a lot that’s still unknown about how estrogen works in the body,” she said. “By delving deeper into how it affects the immune system in normal conditions, we may find answers that can help lupus patients.”
While scientists continue researching women’s health issues, it’s important for women to take care of themselves, said OMRF President Stephen Prescott, M.D. “Women’s Health Week is a good reminder to mothers, daughters, sisters and aunts to continue getting regular check-ups, eat right and stay active.”
“Actually,” he said, “that’s pretty good advice, no matter the week and no matter your gender.”