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The Sitdown: Teresa Woodruff is a driving force for sex equity in medical science

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Updated: July 16, 2014 6:12AM



If you think gender equality had its heyday in the 1960s or ’70s, think again. The founder and director of the Women’s Health Research Institute at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine has been spearheading a revolution for five years that aims to transform everything from a doctor’s prescription to basic scientific research. In doing so, she has become a bit of a celebrity. She was featured in a “60 Minutes” report that generated a “Colbert Report” satire and was credited with changing federal scientific research policy — all because she advocates sex equity.

Woodruff, who earned her bachelor’s in zoology and chemistry at Olivet Nazarene University in Kankakee and her doctorate in biochemistry at Northwestern, was a driving force behind a new National Institutes of Health (NIH) policy to include females — from cells to animals — in preclinical research.

Sex is a variable that needs to be studied as part of the equation. I don’t believe anyone was actively trying to discriminate. About five years ago, I wrote an article in the journal Nature that called upon the scientific community to include the female sex in scientific research from bench to bedside. It’s about improving the health of all people.

Part of it has been tradition (to use only males). It’s a practice ingrained in basic science — it’s the one your mentor used. People weren’t thinking about the fact that sex is a variable — just like the temperature of an experiment or the time you test a biologic agent

Since we are on our way to personalized medicine, you have to make sure you’re not eliminating half of the population. Some people argue that adding females in scientific studies is just doubling the costs. But it’s more costly to women if they are being harmed. Still, to get the message across is almost like hand-to-hand combat.

The next agency we need on board is the Food and Drug Administration. We’re not even making sure that heart stents or artificial knees are studied for both men and women.

When you go to the doctor, you want to be assured that the medicines prescribed are right for your age, your sex and your disease condition. You don’t want your (prescription) drug pulled off the market after it’s been approved. We can make the entire clinical pipeline less costly by getting it right at the basic science level, but that can only happen if drug companies include females in their research too.

I was the basic science director for the Robert H. Lurie Cancer Center (starting in 2002) when it struck me as I was starting a basic science initiative that no one was thinking about women’s reproduction. The thinking was that women who had cancer aren’t interested in fertility; many of them aren’t even married. They need to focus on their long-term survival.

Yet the young men who were diagnosed with cancer were given options. We needed to communicate what the options could be for women.

We set up a whole series of fertility options — some might require a two-week delay (in chemotherapy treatment), while other interventions could be done on the same day that a woman received a cancer diagnosis.

You can bank eggs, embryos or the tissue. We built the global onco-fertility consortium. And now, many babies have been born to women who now have that option.

We often don’t want to talk about it, but you have to understand your reproductive biology to make good decisions about your health. To help the public, I created the “Repropedia” (repropedia.org) to give short definitions of scientific terms. A bubble pops up over the highlighted words so you don’t have to jump to another website.

I like to garden. I have a little garden in my house here in Chicago and another in my place up in Michigan. I like to cook and I like the Chicago Cubs.

I grow at least eight kinds of mint, including spearmint, apple mint, pineapple mint and chocolate mint. Chocolate mint is my favorite because I can use chocolate mint in ice cream, and it’s really amazing. I like how restful and peaceful it is to be out there in the garden.

I make a great cassoulet. I make great desserts. I like to make pies — blueberry, cherry and strawberry rhubarb at this time of year.

I like to bring fresh herbs in from the garden, and that is what makes almost all of my dishes special. My mother gardened, my grandmother gardened, my father loved to garden. I think it’s in my DNA.

Email: sguy@suntimes.com

Twitter: @sandraguy



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