MIT launches new center to investigate endometriosis,
leading cause of female infertility
Emmy nominated Padma Lakshmi, co-founder of the Endometriosis Foundation of America, speaks at the eventCAMBRIDGE, Mass. — Today, Friday, Dec. 4, MIT will officially launch a new center to investigate the underlying causes of endometriosis and other chronic noncancerous diseases of the female reproductive tract. The Center for Gynepathology Research — the first of its type at MIT — will tap into the emerging discipline of biological engineering to understand the origins of endometriosis and design new molecular therapies that may one day yield a cure for it. Emmy nominated Padma Lakshmi is co-founder of the Endometriosis Foundation of America and will speak about her personal experience with the illness at the event.
Endometriosis is the leading cause of female infertility, and affects an estimated 10 million women worldwide. "The likelihood that a woman will experience endometriosis or a related gynepathology before age 50 is about tenfold higher than the likelihood she will be diagnosed with breast cancer," said Linda Griffith, MIT professor of biological and mechanical engineering, noted expert in tissue engineering, and Scientific Director of the new center.
Today’s formal launch of the center will include a talk by actress, author, and Bravo TV host Padma Lakshmi, who suffered from — and ultimately triumphed over — endometriosis. Together with her surgeon, Tamer Seckin, she recently formed the nonprofit Endometriosis Foundation of America to help fight the devastating effects of the disease.
"I spent many years hiding the terrible pain that I was in, and I don't want others to go through the same thing," said Lakshmi. "I'm very excited by the promise of MIT's new center and about bringing the discourse on endometriosis out into the open."
Endometriosis is caused when tissue similar to the lining of the uterus grows outside the uterus, usually on the ovaries, bowels, and lining of the abdominal cavity. The disease often strikes women college age and younger, and can cause painful menstrual periods, excessive bleeding, infertility, and other related health problems. The delay between the onset of symptoms and diagnosis/treatment is typically many years, in part because surgery is the only way to definitively diagnose the disease.
Current treatments can involve manipulating hormone levels, taking birth control pills to halt ovulation and slow the growth of endometrial tissue, and taking drugs that essentially induce menopause. However, side effects can be debilitating, and severe cases of endometriosis usually require repeated surgeries to clear out tissue that continues to build up.
The new MIT center will bring a fresh approach to the study of endometriosis. It will fuse aspects of tissue engineering — the process of creating living, physiological, 3-D tissues and organs — and systems biology. It will pursue research in the context of biological engineering, a new academic discipline rooted in modern molecular life sciences, with broad applications in fields such as medicine, energy and the environment. The undergraduate major in biological engineering, launched in 2005, was MIT's first new undergrad major in 39 years.
Endometriosis research has moved slowly in recent years, in part because there are no good animal models for the disease. Griffith and her collaborators hope to create a tissue model that can be used in the lab to study how the disease originates and progresses.
"The new center will provide scientists, clinicians and engineers with fantastic opportunities to study the basic biology behind the disease, and its diagnosis, prevention and treatment," commented Keith Isaacson, Associate Professor of Obstetrics, Gynecology and Reproductive Biology at Harvard Medical School, Medical Director for the Center for Minimally Invasive Gynecological Surgery at Newton-Wellesley Hospital and Scientific Co-Director of the Center.
Other projects will look at the effects of low-dose radiation on endometrial cells, imaging of endometrial lesions, and the development of new surgical tools for removing uterine tissue.
Griffith is intent on raising awareness of endometriosis, in part because of her own struggle with the disease. She was 12 when she first felt the pain of the disease, though she wasn't officially diagnosed until she was 28. "Doctors told me that I was suffering from too much stress," says Griffith, who underwent several surgeries and still suffers from bouts of the disease.
She's particularly concerned about how the disease affects young women who are just starting a career, what it can mean for them professionally, and how it can negatively affect the quality of their lives. "Diseases like endometriosis take a toll that we don't completely grasp," says Griffith.