During Women’s Health Month, attention turns to the many advances in knowledge about women’s health as well as the gaps that remain in understanding many conditions. The NICHD was founded with a specific focus on women’s health as a way of understanding “the unsolved health problems of children and of mother-infant relationships.” Today, the Institute has one of the broadest and largest NIH research portfolios on women’s health topics, ranging from understanding and treating fertility disorders to preventing mother-to-child transmission of HIV. In addition, the NICHD studies all aspects of pregnancy, from implantation to delivery and beyond.
The Institute’s research includes not only biomedical research, but also behavioral research, such as studies to understand women’s contraceptive behaviors. In this NICHD Spotlight, we highlight just a few of the Institute’s activities related to women’s health, but not specifically those related to pregnancy.
Uterine fibroids, also called Uterine Leiomyoma, are the most common non-cancerous tumors in women of childbearing age. Fibroids are made of muscle cells and other tissues that grow in and around the wall of the uterus, or womb. Fibroids are one of the leading causes of hysterectomy in the United States.
Still, researchers don’t know what causes the tumors, nor is there a reliable long-term medical treatment for fibroid symptoms, which include pain, heavy menstrual periods, anemia (low blood iron), and fatigue, that works in all women who have the tumors. Research also shows that African American women and those who are obese are at greater risk for uterine fibroids, but the reason for the increased risk is not known.
Although answers remain mysterious, researchers have made progress in learning more about the disease. For example, researchers know that fibroids grow in response to progesterone, a hormone made by the ovaries. If researchers can lower the amount or action of progesterone in the body, they believe that they may be able to shrink the fibroids and relieve many of the symptoms. Defining and testing this therapy is the focus of an NICHD clinical trial, which will hopefully provide answers to this important research question.
Another clinical trial is led by Dr. Alicia Armstrong, in the Section on Reproductive Medicine within the NICHD’s Division of Intramural Research Program on Reproductive and Adult Endocrinology. Dr. Armstrong and her colleagues are seeking female volunteers between the ages of 35 and 42, who have symptoms of fibroids, who want to maintain their fertility, and who are candidates for a fibroid treatment called myomectomy—a procedure that removes only the fibroids and leaves the healthy areas of the uterus in place—to take part in this study. Those interested should call the NIH Patient Recruitment and Public Liaison Office at 1-800-411-1222 (TTY: 1-866-411-1010).
PCOS is the most common cause of anovulatory (related to the absence of ovulation) infertility in the United States. It affects between 5 percent and 10 percent of women of childbearing age. The symptoms of PCOS generally include infertility, menstrual problems, excess body or facial hair (called hirsutism), oily skin and acne, and fluid-filled cysts on the ovaries.
The NICHD has been a leader in conducting and supporting PCOS research for decades—in fact, the Institute sponsored the 1990 meeting at which the first set of diagnostic features for PCOS were defined. Since then, the Institute has supported a significant amount of research—much of it through the Reproductive Medicine Network and the Specialized Cooperative Centers Program in Reproduction and Infertility Research, supported by the Reproductive Sciences Branch. This research has enabled scientists to learn a great deal about PCOS, from possible mechanisms of the disease to effective treatments for anovulatory infertility. An important finding of this research is the knowledge that women with PCOS are at higher risk for certain health conditions, beyond just the symptoms of PCOS, than women who do not have the condition. These associated conditions can include metabolic syndrome, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and obstructive sleep apnea.
To help educate women, their families, and their health care providers about PCOS and its associated disorders, the NICHD is publishing a new booklet about PCOS— Beyond Infertility: Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS) —available free through the NICHD Information Resource Center. The Institute will also distribute the booklet to members of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists and The Endocrine Society to increase knowledge about the features of PCOS among health care providers who may care for women with the disorder.
In addition, the NICHD is supporting a number of clinical trials related to PCOS, including some related to improving pregnancy outcomes for women with PCOS and treatments for its associated disorders. The NICHD has also issued a number of news releases about PCOS research.
In addition to its own broad mission in women’s health research, the NICHD also collaborates with other NIH Institutes, government agencies, and non-governmental organizations to help improve women’s health and health research in the United States and around the world. Some examples of these activities include the following:
For more topics related to women's health, please visit the A-Z Topics page.
Originally Posted: May 23, 2008
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