Mazure Honored for Her Influence on Women’s Health Research

Sex and gender are among the most important variables in understanding biology and behavior, and yet women were generally not included in clinical research trials until recent years, notes Professor Carolyn M. Mazure, who is being honored this month for her efforts to change all that.

Mazure created the Women’s Health Research at Yale (WHRY) program in 1998 based on the premise that understanding gender differences is vitally important to the health of both women and men. The interdisciplinary program is dedicated to exploring the wide range of conditions that are more prevalent in women or for which the causes, treatment and prevention have gender-specific ­differences.

The program — which Mazure began with a grant from The Patrick and Catherine Weldon Donaghue Medical Research Foundation of West Hartford — has grown to become a national model for fostering interdisciplinary research on women’s health and disseminating findings with real-world benefits to the community.

On Oct. 29 in a ceremony in Hartford, Mazure will be inducted into the Connecticut Women’s Hall of Fame, both in recognition of her vision in founding WHRY and in honor of the influence she has had on biomedical research and health care.

Mazure, an internationally recognized researcher, is professor of psychiatry and psychology and associate dean for faculty affairs at the Yale School of Medicine.

From early in her career, Mazure was keenly interested in examining gender differences, and she understood the value of uncovering them in her own field. She was the first to show that stress is a more potent pathway to depression in women than in men. She also realized the wider value of such information and recognized that it was sorely lacking across many fields of biomedical research.

Since its founding WHRY has grown dramatically. It now includes research “cores,” studying a host of women’s health areas. One of the latest areas of research, for example, concerns post-deployment readjustment to civilian life for women veterans returning from combat zones in Iraq and Afghanistan. This work is being planned and conducted by the program’s Women and Trauma Core, and is one of the first such studies of female combat veterans.

Under Mazure’s guidance, WHRY also has built collaborative relationships both within the medical school and with other institutions. For example, the Yale program is partnering with the McConnell Heart Health Center in Columbus, Ohio, to study gender differences in the prevention and treatment of heart disease, the leading cause of death among both women and men.

Mazure designed a key part of WHRY, its Pilot Project Program. This initiative helps scientists generate the data they need — much of which was previously not available on women’s health — to obtain external grants from the National Institutes of Health and other major funding sources, so they can continue the work they have begun.

This initiative has awarded more than $4 million in grants to fund more than 55 innovative pilot studies exploring a variety of women- and gender-related health issues. All told, the results of these “seed” grants have allowed Yale researchers to obtain about $38 million in external grants to further their research.

“Ten years ago gender-sensitive studies were not an easily funded avenue of investigation,” says Dr. Karl Insogna, professor of internal medicine at Yale, who has been a member of the research program’s scientific review committee from the start and a WHRY-funded investigator. “But it is clearly much easier to get that funding now, and Dr. Mazure’s program has made a major contribution to that.”

The issues that have been studied by investigators who have received Pilot Project grants include cardiovascular disease; lung and breast cancer, the leading causes of cancer deaths among women; osteoporosis, which is a major source of disability for older women; depression, which strikes women at higher rates than men; and smoking cessation, which is particularly difficult for women compared to men.

But the program’s work does not end with the scientific results. Early on, Mazure established a Community Council of volunteer advisers to help raise both funds and awareness. In fact, WHRY has an entire component devoted to connecting with the community — to informing people about the practical benefits of the latest research findings and to insuring that they understand how scientific knowledge evolves over time and how health care practices and treatments need to change with advances in research.

“Carolyn’s outreach has provided the community with invaluable insights into how research actually works in providing new health information,” says Will Ginsberg, president and chief executive officer of The Community Foundation for Greater New Haven. “This type of knowledge empowers people locally by allowing many to play a more proactive role in their health care.”

It wasn’t until 1993 that the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the biggest source of biomedical funding, began requiring researchers to consider including women in clinical trials. Women had been excluded for a variety of reasons. Chief among them were concerns about exposing women to experimental risks during childbearing years — a legitimate concern, notes Mazure. However, excluding virtually all women meant that gender-specific health questions would not be explored.

There were also misconceptions that certain ailments, such as cardiovascular disease, did not affect women to the extent they affected men. Further, incorrect assumptions that women were affected by health conditions in the same way men were, and concerns about the complexities that studying women would add to the research also excluded them.

As Mazure notes, “We’re still at the beginning of a very long road.” Researching women’s health and gender differences is still in its infancy, she adds. “That’s why we need a program like this. I can’t foresee a time when we won’t need to study and understand gender differences.”

— By Daniel P. Jones, Women’s Health Research at Yale

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