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Women’s Health

Genetics, Pediatrics, Transplants, Women's Health

Rare African genes might reduce risks to pregnant women and their infants

Rare African genes might reduce risks to pregnant women and their infants

Khoe-SanWhen Hugo Hilton began working at Stanford as a young researcher several years ago, his supervisor set him to work on a minor problem so he could practice some standard lab techniques. His results, however, were anything but standard. His supervisor — senior research scientist Paul Norman — told him to do the work over, convinced the new guy had made a mistake. But Hilton, got the same result the second time, so Norman made him do it over again. And then again.

“This was Hugo’s first PCR reaction in our lab and I gave him the DNA,” recalled Norman, “and the very first one he did, he pulled out this mutation. I was convinced that he’d made a mistake.” Norman even quietly redid the work himself. But the gene variant was real.

Norman and colleagues had been studying the same group of immune genes for decades and he knew them like the back of his hand. Yet he was astonished by what Hilton had stumbled on — a mutation that switched a molecular receptor from one protein target to another. It would be as if you bent your house key ever so slightly and discovered it now opened the door to your neighbor’s apartment — but not yours.

And the mutation, far from causing some illness, might contribute to healthier mothers and babies. Parallel research at another institution suggests the odd gene most likely changes the placenta during early pregnancy, leading to better-nourished babies and a reduced risk of pre-eclampsia, a major cause of maternal death.

The surprising finding grew out of a long-term effort to understand how immune system genes make us reject organ transplants. A big part of that puzzle is understanding how much immune genes can vary. On the surfaces of ordinary cells are proteins called HLAs. Combinations of these proteins mark cells in a way that makes each person’s cells so nearly unique that the immune system can recognize cells as either self or not self. When a surgeon transplants a kidney, the recipient’s immune system can tell that the kidney is someone else’s — just from its cell surface HLA proteins. The patient’s immune system then signals its natural killer cells to attack the transplanted kidney. The key to all that specificity is the huge variation in the genes for the HLA proteins.

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Mental Health, Pregnancy, Research, Women's Health

Study shows mothers receiving fertility treatments may have an elevated risk of depression

Study shows mothers receiving fertility treatments may have an elevated risk of depression

5088785288_9f7a23f17a_zAn estimated one in four couples in developing countries encounter difficulties trying to conceive. In the United States, more than 7 million women have undergone fertility treatments and, as a result, millions of babies have been born through in-vitro fertilization.

While many may assume that failed fertility treatments would increase a woman’s risk of depression more than successful attempts that resulted in a live birth, research recently published in the journal ACTA Obstetricia et Gynecologica Scandinavica shows that the opposite may be true.

In the study, researchers from the University of Copenhagen analyzed data on 41,000 Danish women who had undergone fertility treatments. PsychCentral reports that “investigators discovered women who give birth after receiving fertility treatment are five times more likely to develop depression compared to women who don’t give birth.”

Lead author Camilla Sandal Sejbaek, PhD, discusses the results in the story:

The new results are surprising because we had assumed it was actually quite the opposite. However, our study clearly shows that women who become mothers following fertility treatment have an increased risk of developing depression in the first six weeks after birth compared to women who did not have a child.

Our study has not looked at why the depression occurs, but other studies indicate that it could be caused by hormonal changes or mental factors, but we cannot say for sure. We did not find any correlation between the number of fertility treatments and the subsequent risk of depression.

Previously: Stanford-developed fertility treatment deemed a “top medical breakthrough” of the year, Ask Stanford Med: Expert in reproductive medicine responds to questions on infertility, Image of the Week: Baby born after mom receives Stanford-developed fertility treatment and NIH study suggests progestin in infertility treatment for women with PCOS may be counterproductive
Photo by Big D2112

FDA, Media, Research, Science Policy, Sexual Health, Women's Health

“A historic moment for women”: FDA approves the first drug to treat hypoactive sexual desire disorder

"A historic moment for women": FDA approves the first drug to treat hypoactive sexual desire disorder

20705116491_5351758c67_zRoughly 16 million women over the age of 50 suffer from low sex drive. Yet, until recently, there were no FDA-approved medications to treat the lack of sexual thoughts and desire experienced by women with hypoactive sexual desire disorder (HSDD).

That’s why the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s recent approval of the drug flibanserin (sold under the brand name Addyi™) to treat women with HSDD, is such big news.

“It’s a historic moment for women,” said Leah Millheiser, MD, director of Stanford’s Female Sexual Medicine Program, in a story published today in the San Francisco Chronicle. HSDD, Millheiser explains, is more than the occasional loss of sexual desire that can result from changes in hormones, stress and discontent in a relationship. “These are women who want to have sex with their partner, they’re attracted to their partner and used to love having sex,” Millheiser said. “It’s as if someone turned off the lightbulb.”

It’s tempting to equate flibanserin to Viagra (the drug approved to treat erectile disfunction in men), but this is clinically inaccurate. As explained in the article, Viagra treats erectile dysfunction by increasing blood flow to the penis, while flibanserin works on the brain.

From the story:

The drug [flibanserin] was first developed as an antidepressant. Like other antidepressants, it works on the brain’s serotonin levels, but researchers say it works on different serotonin receptors than other similar antidepressants.

It didn’t work to relieve depression, as it turned out, but patients reported increased sexual desire.

In clinical trials, researchers said 53 percent of women who took the drug reported an increased desire for sex and 29 percent said the drug decreased their level of distress over their condition. In the trials, the number of “satisfying sexual events” reported by participants essentially doubled from an average of 2.5 per month before they received flibanserin to five while taking it.

Millheiser credits Viagra for helping to pave the way for this new approved treatment for HSDD.  “As a result of Viagra, there was an explosion in research and understanding into what sexual dysfunction is and how we treat it,” she said. “It took 17 years to … get to this day,” she said.

Previously: When hormonal issues interfere with mental healthFemale sexual health expert responds to delay in approval for “Viagra for women and Speaking up about female sexual dysfunction
Photo by Day Donaldson

Cancer, Health and Fitness, Pediatrics, Public Health, Research, Women's Health

Examining the long-term health benefits for women of exercise in adolescence

Examining the long-term health benefits for women of exercise in adolescence

soccer_8.4.15Sometime around the age of five, I distinctly remember my mother telling me, “You have to play a sport. You can pick any sport you want, but you have to play a sport.” I recall this encounter vividly because I really, really didn’t want to play sports. At the time, I was the “everything-has-to-be-pink, Barbie-doll-playing, glitter-loving” type. But I picked a sport, soccer, and surprisingly stuck with it through college.

Fast forward to today, when I came across new research touting the health benefits of exercise during adolescence and was compelled to send a “Thanks, mom” text for her fitness mandate. The findings, which were recently published in the journal Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers & Prevention, show that women who regularly exercised as teenagers had a decreased risk of dying from cancer, cardiovascular disease and other causes during middle-age and later in life.

The study was conducted by Vanderbilt University Medical Center and the Shanghai Cancer Institute and involved the analysis of data from the Shanghai Women’s Health Study, a large ongoing prospective cohort study of 74,941 Chinese women ages 40 to 70.

Researchers defined regular exercise as occurring a minimum of once a week for three consecutive months. Lead author Sarah Nechuta, PhD, said in a release, “In women, adolescent exercise participation, regardless of adult exercise, was associated with reduced risk of cancer and all-cause mortality.”

More details about the study results:

Investigators found that participation in exercise both during adolescence and recently as an adult was significantly associated with a 20 percent reduced risk of death from all causes, 17 percent for cardiovascular disease and 13 percent for cancer.

While there have been several studies of the role of weight gain and obesity on overall mortality later in life, the authors believe this is the first cohort study of the impact of exercise during adolescence on later cause-specific and all-cause mortality among women.

The authors note that an important next step is to evaluate the role of adolescent exercise in the incidence of major chronic diseases, such as cardiovascular disease and major cancers, which will also help provide more insight into the mechanisms of disease.

Previously: Study finds teens who play two sports show notably lower obesity rates, Exercise may lower women’s risk of dementia later in life, How physical activity influences health and Stanford pediatrician discusses developing effective programs to curtail childhood obesity
Photo by Ole Olson

Aging, Ask Stanford Med, Chronic Disease, Neuroscience, Women's Health

Exploring Alzheimer’s toll on women

Exploring Alzheimer’s toll on women

Julianne Moore AlzheimersIn last year’s “Still Alice,” Julianne Moore’s portrays a woman beset by early-onset Alzheimer’s Disease. It’s fitting that the academy-award winning film (Moore garnered a Best Actress award for her role) about Alzheimer’s features a woman as the central character because the illness disproportionately affects women.

The BeWell@Stanford blog recently featured a Q&A with Stanford neurologist and Alzheimer’s researcher Michael Greicius, MD, MPH about Alzheimer’s and women. The piece covers the effects of the disease, but I was intrigued to read about the challenges for caregivers of people with the disease (who are also disproportionately women):

Most of the caregivers of people with Alzheimer’s Disease are women. Do you have any advice for them in terms of how they can take care of themselves while taking care of a loved one with the disease?

This gets to the damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t aspect of AD and women. On the one hand, women are more likely to develop AD; on the other hand, they are also more likely to find themselves as the primary caregiver for someone with AD. It is now well known that caring for someone with AD has a powerful, negative impact on physical and emotional well-being. Particularly as the disease progresses and patients require more care, there is a large physical toll taken when, for example, having to lift patients out of a chair or off the toilet or out of bed. Sleep becomes fractured for the patient. which means it becomes fractured for the caregiver.

Some of the questions also dealt with the fact that despite the recent advances in Alzheimer’s research, we still don’t completely understand how the disease works or how it can be prevented:

What can we do to reduce our risk for developing the disease?

We do not know of anything that definitely reduces a person’s risk of developing Alzheimer’s, although there is strong data to suggest that regular aerobic exercise and a heart-smart diet will reduce risk. Head trauma is an important risk factor for AD and another type of dementia, so minimizing exposure to head trauma can also reduce risk of AD. Numerous companies make explicit or implicit claims about their “nutraceutical” or vitamin or “brain-training” software being able to stave off AD. None of these claims are true and most, if not all, of these purveyors are modern-day snake-oil salesmen and saleswomen.

But Greicius is optimistic and pointed out that Stanford recently became an NIH-sponsored Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center, which means we can build upon Stanford’s past “ground-breaking Alzheimer’s research.”

Previously: Are iron, and the scavenger cells that eat it, critical links to Alzheimer’s?Alzheimer’s forum with Rep. Jackie Speier spurs conversation, activismScience Friday explores women’s heightened risk for Alzheimer’s and The toll of Alzheimer’s on caretakers
Photo by Maria Morri

Cancer, Genetics, Women's Health

Genetic testing and its role in women’s health and cancer screening

Genetic testing and its role in women's health and cancer screening

14342954637_3f8c3fde77_zYears ago, when I first learned that genetic testing could help screen for some cancers, such as breast, ovarian and bone, it seemed like a no-brainer to get this testing done. Now I know better; genetic testing is a helpful tool that can help you assess your risk for certain kinds of cancer, but it’s not recommended for everyone. Senior genetic counselor Kerry Kingham, a clinical assistant professor affiliated with the Cancer Genetics Clinic at Stanford, explains why this is the case in a recent Q&A with BeWell@Stanford.

Cancer can be “hereditary” or “sporadic” in nature, Kingham says. Hereditary cancers, such as the forms of breast cancer related to a mutation in the BRCA1 or BRCA2 genes, are associated with an inherited genetic mutation. In contrast, sporadic cancers arise independent of family history or other risk factors. Since genetics testing detects gene mutations, it can only be used to help screen for the mutations that may lead to forms of hereditary cancer.

Kingham elaborates on this point, when it makes sense to get genetic testing, and what the results may mean in the Q&A:

Twelve percent of women in the U.S. develop breast cancer; it is a common disease. Yet, only five to ten percent of these women will develop breast cancer because of a hereditary gene mutation.

The best step to take prior to deciding whether or not to proceed with genetic testing is to meet with a genetic counselor. Your doctor can provide a referral. The genetic counselor will take a three generation family history, discuss the testing that might be indicated for you or a family member, and explain the risks and benefits of the testing. They also discuss the potential outcomes of the testing: whether a mutation is found, a mutation is not found, or there are uncertain results. Even when a genetic test is negative, this may not mean that the individual or their family is not at risk for cancer.

At this point you may be wondering: Why bother with genetic testing if it’s only useful for hereditary cancers and a negative test result is no guarantee you’re risk-free? Kingham’s closing comment addresses this question nicely: “I would say that your genes don’t change – they are what they are, and knowing what is in our genes can often help us learn how to take better care of our health.”

Previously: Stanford researchers suss out cancer mutations in genome’s dark spotsAngelina Jolie Pitt’s New York Times essay praised by Stanford cancer expertNIH Director highlights Stanford research on breast cancer surgery choices and Researchers take a step towards understanding the genetics behind breast cancer
Photo by Paolo

Behavioral Science, Medicine and Society, Men's Health, Mental Health, Research, Women's Health

Living with a partner boosts your health

lonely-273629_1280Partners help. They help with daily activities like dishwashing and dog-walking, but they also provide the all-valuable emotional support needed to cope with everything from a rough commute to the death of a family member.

And those without a partner, perhaps due to divorce, are more likely to suffer from depression or anxiety, according to a new study (in Spanish) in the Spanish Journal of Sociological Research. Women have it the hardest, says lead author Carlos Simó-Noguera from the University of Valencia, who is quoted in a recent Medical News Today article.

Women who have lost their partner “show poorer health than men with the same marital and cohabiting status, and are more likely to suffer from chronic anxiety and chronic depression,” Simó-Noguera said.

Men are also affected, however. Separated or divorced men “have higher risk for chronic depression than the rest of men,” he said.

The team gathered data from the European Health Survey on people between ages 25 and 64.

“The key is not marital status per se, but is found in the interaction between marital status and cohabitation status. Therefore, living with a new partner after the dissolution of marriage preserves the health of the people involved,”Simó-Noguera said.

Previously: Practicing forgiveness to sustain healthy relationships, “Love hormone” may mediate wider range of relationships than previously thought and Study offers clue as to why parents of daughters are more likely to divorce
Photo by cocoparisienne

Global Health, HIV/AIDS, Immunology, Research, Stanford News, Women's Health

HIV study in Kenyan women: Diversity in a single immune-cell type flags likelihood of getting infected

HIV study in Kenyan women: Diversity in a single immune-cell type flags likelihood of getting infected

virally infected cellsWhen it comes to immune cells, “it takes all kinds” isn’t too bad a description of what makes for the best composition of our fighting force for warding off viruses, bacteria and incipient tumors. But in a study just published in Science Translational Medicine, Stanford infectious-disease immunologist Catherine Blish, MD, PhD, and her colleagues have found, unexpectedly, that high diversity in the overall population of one particular type of immune cells strongly correlates with an increased likelihood of subsequent infection by HIV.

The investigators had figured that diversity in so-called natural killer cells, or NK cells, would be a strength, not a detriment. “Our hypothesis was wrong,” Blish (much of whose research focuses on NK cells) told me. In this study,  it was higher, rather than lower, diversity in this immune-cell population that turned out to be associated with increased HIV susceptibility.

NK cells, fierce white blood cells that help fight viruses and tumors, harbor various combinations of receptors on their surface. Some receptors recognize signs of our other cells’ normalcy, while others recognize signs that a cell is stressed — due, say, to viral infection or cancerous mutation. On recognizing their targeted features on other cells’ surfaces, an NK cell’s “normalcy” receptors tend to inhibit it, while its stress-recognizing receptors activate it.

All told, NK cells can have many thousands of different combinations of these receptors on their surfaces, with each combination yielding a slightly different overall activation threshold. At birth, our NK cells are pretty similar to one another. But as they acquire life experience – largely from viral exposure, Blish thinks – they increasingly diverge in the specific combinations of receptors they carry on their surfaces.

From my news release on the study:

In order to assess the impact of NK-cell diversity on adult humans’ viral susceptibility, Blish and her associates turned to blood samples that had been drawn during the Mama Salama Study, a longitudinal study of just over 1,300 healthy … Kenyan women. [T]he researchers carried out a precise analysis of NK cells in the women’s blood and observed a strong positive correlation between the diversity of a woman’s NK cell population and her likelihood of becoming infected with HIV.

This correlation held up despite the women’s being statistically indistinguishable with respect to age, marital status, knowledge of sexual partners’ HIV status, history of trading sex for money or goods, sexually transmitted disease status or reported frequency of recent unprotected sex.

And the NK-diversity-dependent difference in these women’s likelihood of HIV infection was huge. From my release:

Those with the most NK-cell diversity were 10 times as likely as those with the least diversity to become infected. A 10-fold risk increase based solely on NK-cell diversity is far from negligible, said Blish. “By way of comparison, having syphilis increases the risk of contracting HIV two- to four-fold, while circumcised men’s HIV risk is reduced by a factor of 2.5 or 3,” she said.

These surprising findings  could spur the development of blood tests capable of predicting individuals’ susceptibility to viral infection.

Previously: Study: Pregnancy causes surprising changes in how the immune system responds to the flu, Revealed: Epic evolutionary struggle between reproduction and immunity to infectious disease and Our aging immune systems are still in business, but increasingly thrown out of balance
Photo by NIAID

Patient Care, Pregnancy, Women's Health

“The Mama Sherpas”: Exploring the work of nurse-midwives and their collaborations with doctors

"The Mama Sherpas": Exploring the work of nurse-midwives and their collaborations with doctors

baby feetAs a doula, I’m pretty tapped into the birth community, and I’ve definitely noticed a trend toward midwifery care and low-intervention births. Indeed, a 2012 study showed that more babies than ever before are being delivered by midwives.

Now, a new film is documenting how midwives and obstetricians are increasingly teaming up to offer great maternity care. “The Mama Sherpas,” directed by Brigid Maher and produced by Ricki Lake and Abby Epstein (the same people behind the well-known “The Business of Being Born“), showcases the growing popularity of Certified Nurse Midwives (CNMs) in hospital births.

CNMs are registered nurses who have a master’s degree in midwifery and who adhere to the “woman-centered” Midwives Model of Care. According to the film, collaborative care between CNMs and obstetricians can lead to decreased C-section rates, increased VBAC rates (vaginal birth after cesarean), far lower health-care costs, and mothers who are more satisfied with their birth experience.

I had the chance to attend an advance screening, sponsored by the Nurse-Midwives of Monterey Bay, last week, and I was particularly impressed by the footage of the births of the women chronicled. While highly graphic, it provided beautiful portraits of calm and powerful vaginal births, a life-saving caesarian, and even a vaginal breech birth – which I and many in the audience of birth workers had never seen before! Afterwards, the panel of CNMs and obstetricians from hospitals in Santa Cruz and Davis called for more obstetricians to be trained in vaginal delivery of breech births, and in turning breech babies by performing external versions, so that those options can be offered to women.

Previously: In poorest countries, increase in midwives could save lives of mothers and their babiesA reminder that prenatal care is key to a healthy pregnancyUnneeded cesareans are risky and expensive and Tensions high in debate over safety of home births
Photo by Bridget Colla

Behavioral Science, Nutrition, Research, Women's Health

Adventurous eaters more likely to be healthy, new study shows

Adventurous eaters more likely to be healthy, new study shows

9044506418_142bb67dcc_zAre you willing to sample chocolate-covered silkworm pupae? What about blood sausage or, for the vegetarians among us, some shoo-fly pie (one of my personal favorites)?

If any or all of those sound tasty, or at least worth trying, then you’re probably a food neophile, aka an adventurous eater. And for you, I’m the bearer of good news: Adventurous eaters have lower body-mass indexes and are generally more conscious about healthy eating than their less adventurous diners, according to a study published recently in Obesity.

Researchers from Cornell University and the University of Vermont recruited about 500 women and had them complete a survey on their eating habits and willingness to try new things and foods. The answers shed insight into the connections between healthy habits and adventurousness:

…Adventurous eaters were less concerned that a food was easy to prepare and about its price, but more interested in cooking as a way to connect with their heritage and more likely to have friends over for dinner. Given that cooking at home is associated with lower BMI and increased consumption of healthy foods, if adventurous eaters are comfortable with foods that were harder to prepare, and often have friends over for dinner, it may be that they prepare their own food more often than non-adventurous eaters. Furthermore, eating with others versus eating alone has been associated with decreased intake in some studies. The lower concern about price of foods exhibited by more adventurous eaters is in line with characteristics of foodies, who are much more concerned with food quality than food price. Because healthy foods are often more expensive than junk foods and require preparation, adventurous eaters may be more likely to procure and prepare these types of foods than non-adventurous eaters.

The authors go on to write that the findings “have exciting practical implications” and suggest “several strategies [that] practitioners could use to help increase adventurousness.” But they acknowledge the research has several limitations, including its lack of men and definition of “adventurousness.”

Previously:  Where is the love? A discussion of nutrition, health and repairing our relationship with food, “They might be healthier, but they’ll still be junk foods”: Expert comments on trans-fat ban and Examining how food texture impacts perceived calorie content
Photo by Smabs Sputzer

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