NICHD Activities and Collaborations Broaden the Scope of Women's Health Research
During their lifetimes, many women will face a wide array of health issues. Some will seek treatment for gynecological conditions, such as endometriosis and uterine cancer. Others will experience conditions that affect both males and females, but that follow a different course in women, such as heart disease. Women's health is also affected by factors like socioeconomic status and race/ethnicity, sometimes in ways that they cannot control directly.
National Women's Health Week, which was observed last week from May 13 to 19, is a week-long celebration of the many facets of women's health. This yearly event is coordinated by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' Office on Women's Health (OWH). The event brings together communities, businesses, government agencies, health organizations, and other groups nationwide to support and promote women's health and healthy activities. During the event, many communities provide free screenings and health fairs, give out educational materials, and conduct outreach activities to promote women's health and wellness.
To reinforce this year's theme—It's Your Time—the OWH offered and supported numerous activities to help women take charge of their health and reduce their risk of illness. National Women's Health Week messages included getting regular checkups and screenings, staying active, eating healthfully, getting enough sleep, and avoiding unhealthy behaviors, such as smoking.
Women's health research is a central part of the NICHD's research mission and portfolio. In addition to research efforts on pregnancy and childbirth, the Institute also studies: gynecological diseases and other diseases that only or primarily affect women; conditions that affect women differently; and the environmental, behavioral, and social factors that might influence women's health. In collaboration with other NIH Institutes and Centers and with other agencies and organizations, the NICHD also encourages women to pursue biomedical careers and to help get health messages into their communities. The links below provide a sampling of some of the Institute's activities within the realm of women's health:
The NICHD pursues a range of research on gynecological and reproductive health diseases, including infertility and sexually transmitted diseases. For example:
- A recent NICHD-supported study found that vitamin D treatment reduced the size of uterine fibroids in laboratory rats that were genetically predisposed to developing the benign tumors. For details on this finding, read the NICHD news release Vitamin D shrinks fibroid tumors in rats.
- The Institute's efforts on endometriosis were recently featured in the spotlight Endometriosis Awareness Month and NICHD Research.
- Recent findings from an NICHD study examined the association between stress and infertility. For details on this finding, read the NICHD news release NIH Study Indicates Stress May Delay Women Getting Pregnant.
- Several Institute-supported advances related to HIV/AIDS in women and girls were featured in the NICHD Spotlight NICHD HIV/AIDS Research and National Women and Girls HIV/AIDS Awareness Day.
NICHD-supported researchers are also studying stress urinary incontinence (SUI), a relatively common condition in which urine leaks when a woman coughs, sneezes, laughs, or exercises. In a study conducted through the NICHD-supported Pelvic Floor Disorders Network, researchers compared the effectiveness of a continence pessary to evidence-based behavioral therapy for SUI, both alone and in combination. A pessary is a device worn in the vagina that supports the walls of the vagina, lifting the bladder and nearby urethra, to help reduce stress leakage.
Three months after treatment, more women in the behavioral therapy group had no bothersome SUI symptoms and more were satisfied with treatment outcomes compared to women in the pessary group. The differences in satisfaction, however, did not persist 12 months after treatment. Combination therapy was better than using the pessary alone, but not better than behavioral therapy alone. Patient satisfaction remained above 50% for all treatment groups. The findings suggest that a pessary is a reasonable alternative for women who are not interested in adhering to behavioral therapy as an initial approach to non-surgical treatment for SUI. The study authors recommended that individualized treatment should continue to be the main approach for treating patients.
For details on this finding, visit PubMed ID: 20177294.
The NICHD supports research on maternal health to understand pregnancy, conditions that affect women during pregnancy, and diseases that require treatment during pregnancy. For example:
- In a recent study, NICHD researchers examined the diets of women prior to pregnancy to determine their risk for developing gestational diabetes and found that certain diets put women at higher risk than other diets. For more details on this finding, read the NICHD news release High animal fat diet increases gestational diabetes risk.
- Another NICHD-supported study examined the benefits of treating gestational diabetes even when symptoms were mild. For details on this finding, read the NICHD news release Treating Even Mild Gestational Diabetes Reduces Birth Complications.
- Previous research showed that progesterone helped to reduce the risk of preterm birth among women who previously had a spontaneous preterm birth and among women who had a shorter-than-normal cervix. In a recent meta-analysis found that the progesterone reduced the rate of preterm birth among those with a short cervix and who previously delivered a baby preterm. For details on this finding, read the NICHD news release Study shows additional benefits of progesterone in reducing preterm birth risk.
- Institute-supported researchers also found that labor patterns have changed significantly over the last 50 years and identified some of the possible explanations for these changes. Listen to an audio briefing on this finding at http://nichd.nih.gov/news/releases/Pages/030412-time-to-labor.aspx.
- Research shows that more time in the womb—specifically 39 weeks or more—gives the best outcomes for mother and baby. The NICHD's National Child and Maternal Health Education Program (NCMHEP) launched a continuing medical education/continuing education course in 2011, available through the Medscape website, that explains the benefits of delaying birth, when not medically indicated, until 39 weeks or later. For more information on this program, visit the NICHD spotlight Increasing Awareness of Late Preterm Birth.
- Recent NICHD spotlights have featured several HIV/AIDS advances within the Institute's portfolio, including several related to HIV/AIDS in mothers and reducing mother-to-child transmission:
The NICHD supports research on disorders, conditions, and diseases that affect only women or that affect women differently.
For example, the NICHD Division of Intramural Research, Program on Developmental Endocrinology and Genetics, conducts research on Turner syndrome, a disorder caused by a partially or completely missing X chromosome. Turner syndrome affects only females and occurs in approximately 1 out of every 2,500 female live births worldwide. It includes a broad spectrum of features, from major heart defects to minor body structure issues. Almost all females with Turner syndrome have very short in stature and most experience loss of ovarian function.
The following findings are among the recent studies of Turner syndrome conducted by NICHD researchers:
- The risk for certain heart disorders, including aortic valve disease, is greatly increased in women with Turner syndrome.
- Hormone replacement is an effective therapy that helps the development of a normal uterus in women with Turner syndrome.
- Growth hormone treatment reduces abdominal adiposity and improves glucose tolerance in girls with Turner syndrome.
- Risk for type 2 diabetes is increased with X chromosome dosage in women with Turner syndrome.
For more information on current NICHD research on Turner syndrome, visit http://turners.nichd.nih.gov/.
Rett syndrome, usually caused by mutations in the MECP2 gene, occurs in approximately 1 out of every 10,000 girls born and rarely occurs in boys. In a recent study partially funded by the NICHD, researchers investigated the natural history of Rett syndrome to shed light on the full clinical spectrum of this disease. For details on this finding, read the NICHD news release: NIH Researchers Find That Rett Syndrome Gene is Full of Surprises.
The NICHD portfolio also includes research to understand factors that affect women's health, including the personal/dietary, environmental, behavioral, and social influences on women's health. Recent NICHD-supported research on some of these factors is described in more detail below.
- NICHD spotlight: NIH Research Highlights Health Impact of Indoor Pollution from Cooking
- NICHD news release: Young Women With Menopause-like Condition At Risk For Depression
- NICHD news release: Association between elevated levels of lead, cadmium and delayed puberty in girls
- NICHD news release Women's Cholesterol Levels Vary with Phase of Menstrual Cycle
Through professional training and education programs, as well as career development activities, the NICHD aims to build up the cadre of health care providers, researchers, and others who study women's health and its various aspects.
Some of these activities include the following:
- The NICHD supports Specialized Cooperative Centers Program in Reproduction and Infertility Research (SCCPIR), a national network of research-based centers that promotes multidisciplinary interactions between scientists. Participating scientists conduct basic and clinical research and are interested in establishing high-quality, translational research programs in the reproductive sciences. The centers also serve as national resources for the training and career development of young scientists electing to pursue careers conducting research in high priority areas of reproduction and infertility.
- The Women's Reproductive Health Research (WRHR) Career Development Program is a training opportunity for obstetrician/gynecologists (OB/GYNs) interested in pursuing women's health research. The program provides OB/GYNs who recently completed their postgraduate clinical training with additional education and experience in basic, translational, and clinical research.
- The Institute participates in the Building Interdisciplinary Research in Women's Health (BIRCWH) program, which supports physician-scientists as they move between completion of clinical or postdoctoral training and an independent research career. BIRCWH research projects span the spectrum of women's health topics, and the program is open to all types of clinicians and non-clinicians.
The NICHD supports a wide range of research and activities related to women's health. Research areas supported by the NICHD on women's health include gynecological and maternal health research, conditions and aspects of conditions that are unique to women, and other factors that affect women's health. In addition, the NICHD supports training and career development for medical professionals and researchers investigating women's health issues. The research and activities discussed above are just a few examples of the range of women's health topics that NICHD supports.
For more information on women's health research at the NICHD, select one of the following links:
- NICHD Resources
- Women's Health Research at the NICHD
- Division of Intramural Research (DIR)
- Extramural Scientific Branches of DER
- Contraceptive Discovery and Development Branch (CDDB)
- CRH Branch Report to the NACHHD Council, June 2008 (Note: This is a scientific document geared toward an audience of researchers and scientists.)
- Fertility and Interfility (FI) Branch
- RS Branch Report to the NACHHD Council, January 2007 (PDF — 696 KB) (Note: This is a scientific document geared toward an audience of researchers and scientists.)
- Population Dynamics Branch (PDB)
- DBS Branch Report to the NACHHD Council, September 2007 (PDF — 711 KB) (Note: This is a scientific document geared toward an audience of researchers and scientists.)
- Contraceptive Discovery and Development Branch (CDDB)
- Pediatric Growth and Nutrition Branch (PGNB)
- ENG Branch Report to the NACHHD Council, June 2009 (Note: This is a scientific document geared toward an audience of researchers and scientists.)
- Maternal and Pediatric Infectious Disease Branch (MPIDB)
- PAMA Branch Report to the NACHHD Council, June 2007 (Note: This is a scientific document geared toward an audience of researchers and scientists.)
- Pregnancy & Perinatology (PP) Branch
- PP Branch Report to the NACHHD Council, September 2008 (Note: This is a scientific document geared toward an audience of researchers and scientists.)
- Supported Networks and Programs
- Previous Spotlights on Women's Health Research
- Endometriosis Awareness Month and NICHD Research
- NICHD HIV/AIDS Research and National Women and Girls HIV/AIDS Awareness Day
- NIH Meeting on Vulvodynia: Setting a Research Agenda
- Increasing Awareness of Late Preterm Birth
- Partners in Maternal and Child Health
- Pregnancy and Healthy Weight
- Focus on NICHD Women's Health Research
- Zeroing in on Preeclampsia
- National Child and Maternal Health Education Program
- News Releases on Women's Health
- Office of Research on Women's Health (ORWH) Website
- Office on Women's Health Website
Originally Posted: May 22, 2012