Marcia Horwitz welcomed more than 70 people on Jan. 9 to the first women’s health forum sponsored by both the American Committee for the Weizmann Institute of Science and the Hutchinson Center.
Horwitz said the Weizmann Institute is one of the world’s foremost centers of scientific research, graduate studies and women’s health research. The institute’s new Center for Women’s Health Research brings top scientists together to investigate fertility and reproduction, breast and ovarian cancer, and osteoporosis and bone structure. “Today, the Weizmann Institute is a city of science,” said Horwitz.
The forum’s aim was to raise awareness and understanding of critical issues surrounding women’s health. Scientists Moshe Oren, Nava Dekel and Dr. Garnet Anderson were invited to speak at the forum about their research.
Oren and Dekel, both of the Weizmann Institute of Science, conduct major research in the areas of fertility and cancer prevention. Oren said the academic freedom at Weizmann is different than most universities. Scientists aren’t told what to work on. To promote and encourage the scientists to study in a certain area, they are given special incentives in the form of research centers. Oren said the three main areas designated as the main focus of research at Weizmann are fertility and reproduction (hormones and fertility control), cancer and osteoporosis.
American scientist Anderson of the Hutchinson Center and the University of Washington is the coordinator of the Women’s Health Initiative at Fred Hutchinson. She is also an expert in prevention strategies for breast, ovarian and colorectal cancer, as well as coronary disease and fractures. The Women’s Health Initiative, a national 15-year study, is the largest clinical trial ever conducted in post-menopausal women.
The study is aimed at breast cancer, heart disease and hip fractures. It will determine if hormones are good for women, how important a low fat-diet is and if calcium and vitamin D prevent fractures. Anderson said she is tracking all of the major health outcomes of the women.
When Anderson asked how many in the audience believed hormones were a fountain of youth and no one raised his or her hand. She said HRT controls menopausal symptoms, protects bone density, may prevent heart disease, may prevent fractures and it may reduce or prevent dementia. On the other hand, it comes with risks. She said it may increase breast cancer and may increase blood clots in legs and lungs.
In the HRT trial, 27,348 women were randomized. The average time of the study is about four years, and approximately 70 percent of the women are taking study pills. Results are reviewed every six months. Anderson said that HRT may initially increase heart disease and stroke rates.
In the low-fat diet study, 48,837 women were randomized, 40 percent with a low-fat diet and 60 percent with a normal diet (a reduced fat intake to 20 percent of calories). The women meet in group sessions with a trained nutritionist.
“Changing your diet is really a change in lifestyle,” said Anderson.
In the third trial, in which 36,283 women were randomized, Anderson found that calcium and vitamin D reduced fracture rates and colon cancer rates.
Dekel, of the Institute’s Department of Biological Regulation, is an expert in the biochemical and molecular processes in female reproduction. Her research on the development of ova (eggs) is relevant to both fertility specialists treating women who cannot conceive and to the development of natural methods of birth control.
Dekel, who was losing her voice that evening, showed pictures of a zygote being impregnated by a sperm, the moment of fertilization. She also showed a picture of what she called a “nymphomania oocyte,” which got a big laugh from the audience.
Oren, dean of the institute’s Department of Biology, is studying ways that p53, a gene that suppresses cancer, can stem tumor growth.
“Cancer research has been a focal area at Weizmann,” said Oren. He said the p53 gene is a “major mechanism to prevent cancer.” He said when it is functional, it can prevent the cancer process from going further. When it gets mutated, it starts making other mutated p53s and could contribute actively to cancer.
For more information about the Women’s Health Initiative, log on to www.nhlbi.nih.gov/whi. The final data for the initiative will be complete in 2005. For information about the American Committee for the Weizmann Institute of Science, log on to www.weizmann-usa.org