Women's health program probes unexplored sex and gender differences

Men and women are subject to different vulnerabilities when it comes to health and disease. More men than women are diagnosed with autism, for example, while women tend to experience different heart attack symptoms from men.

With support from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), through a new program at Penn called Building Interdisciplinary Research Careers in Women’s Health (BIRCWH), two junior faculty members are venturing into unexplored scientific territory to elucidate some of these sex and gender differences and determine their biological underpinnings.

The two inaugural BIRCWH scholars are Montserrat Anguera, an assistant professor in the School of Veterinary Medicine, and Roy Wade, an instructor of pediatrics in the Perelman School of Medicine and a general pediatrician at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP) Cobbs Creek Primary Care. The BIRCWH program, launched by a $1.9 million grant from the NIH and headed by C. Neill Epperson of Penn Medicine and Tracy Bale of Penn Vet, will support the scholars financially and with research mentorship for two years so they can pursue a pilot study in their area of interest.

Anguera is focusing her work on a biological event known as X-chromosome inactivation, which prevents the genes of one of a female’s two X chromosomes from being expressed as a means of equalizing gene expression between males and females. A new discovery regarding how this inactivation takes place in lymphocytes—a type of white blood cell that is key to immune system responses—may shed light on why women are more prone to autoimmune diseases such as lupus.

“What appealed to me about the BIRCWH award was the opportunity to give researchers a chance to expand beyond their comfort zone or the field in which they were trained,” says Anguera. “I’m moving from research in stem cells and epigenetics into applying that work in immunology. The support from the program has been key in helping me bridge those fields.”

Wade is using the award to pursue a new line of research into how a father’s early childhood experiences may influence the wellbeing of his own children, building on his earlier studies that have examined the intersection between childhood poverty, adversity, and well-being.

“There’s an abundance of research that shows how individuals with a history of childhood trauma are at an increased risk of behavioral and physical health problems,” says Wade. “And there’s work done—in part by Dr. Bale—that shows how these risks can actually be transmitted across generations. I saw this grant as an opportunity to explore the process by which the experiences of a parent can impact the lifelong well-being of their children.”

Wade will be engaging in a case-controlled study, using data from CHOP’s Care Network, to identify associations between a father’s adverse experiences and behavioral or cognitive impairments in his children. That work may then form the basis of experiments to identify a molecular basis for these associations.

“I am always looking for ways to start taking what we’re finding in basic science and move quickly to interventions that can improve health in the clinical world,” Wade says. “I see this BIRCWH program as an opportunity to move this effort forward.”

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