Circle of Giving

group of women sits around table, talking and smiling

Established in 2006, the Center for Women's Health Circle of Giving supports research that leads to improvements in women's health. The program is supported philanthropically by a group of women who are passionate about advancing women's health research at OHSU.

For information about becoming a Circle member, contact Sasha Steiner at

Submissions for the 2024 Circle of Giving funding opportunity are now closed.

Grant summaries

The following projects were funded by the Circle of Giving:

The 2024 Granting Day was a historic first for the Circle of Giving, marking the first time Circle members chose to fully fund all three finalists' proposals. Read our recap of the 2024 Granting Day celebration.

Deena Walker, Ph.D. and Andrey Ryabinin, Ph.D.

Hypothalamic mechanisms of female-specific stress-enhanced alcohol drinking ​​​​​​

Alcohol use disorder, or AUD, is one of the leading causes of preventable mortality. Women drink to regulate stress at higher rates than men. The researchers of this proposal have developed an animal model that shows female-specific increases in alcohol consumption in response to stress. They aim to identify differences in gene expression between male and female mice that voluntarily consume alcohol when presented with psychological stress. Their goal is to target relevant genes to counteract stress-enhanced alcohol drinking in women.

Wassana Yantasee, Ph.D., M.B.A. and Shivaani Kummar, M.D.

Nanoparticle based Interleukin-2 therapy for breast and ovarian cancers

Triple negative breast cancer and ovarian cancer are aggressive cancers that affect women worldwide. While new immunotherapies have shown promise in fighting difficult-to-treat cancers, they are less effective in treating triple negative breast cancer and ovarian cancer due to a lack of cancer killing CD8+ T cells within those tumors. Interleukin-2 (IL-2) can boost CD8+ T cells but has limitations and significant toxicity. Researchers propose to create new IL-2 therapeutics where IL-2 is loaded onto their patented nanoparticles. They hypothesize these new therapeutics can overcome IL-2 limitations to increase the efficacy of immunotherapies, leading to better patient outcomes.                 

Lynne Shinto, N.D., M.P.H., Jacquelyn Knapp, M.D. and Chris Stauffer, M.D.

Shifting the pain perspective: A feasibility study of psilocybin therapy for chronic pelvic pain in women

Chronic pelvic pain affects up to 15% of women and may be caused by endometriosis, irritable bowel syndrome, inflammatory bladder disorders, other conditions, or a combination of these. Many patients with this condition will have complex pain that does not fully respond to treatment or may experience side effects from some treatment options. Emerging evidence suggests that psilocybin is effective in difficult-to-treat pain syndromes such as migraines or cluster headaches. This study aims to assess the safety and feasibility of a single dose of psilocybin followed by talk therapy to treat chronic pelvic pain and will be the first to evaluate the effectiveness of psilocybin for this condition. 

Laura Newell, M.D., Maros Ferencik, M.D., Jennifer Dunlap, M.D., Rachel Cook, M.D.

Determinants of Clonal Evolution and Inflammatory Complications Occurring after Therapy for Breast Cancer

Breast cancer occurs in 1 of 8 American women. While survival rates have increased over the past decades, partly due to intensification of therapies, this increase in treatment intensity has also increased the risk of life-threatening complications. People exposed to chemotherapy/radiation for breast cancer are at increased risk of developing serious bone marrow disorders; these aggressive blood diseases are most often fatal. Treatment can also cause damage to the heart and other organs. Survivors are also at risk of developing mutations in clonal hematopoiesis (CH) genes (genes associated with bone marrow disorders and inflammation), which can further increase the risk of complications. Dr. Newell and colleagues aim to identify key mechanisms of these complications and potential treatment options. Their ultimate goal is to identify novel strategies to prevent such toxicities from ever occurring in the first place.

Laura Heiser, Ph.D., Lisa Coussens, Ph.D, and Carsten Shultz, Ph.D.

A comprehensive approach to examine neutrophil elastase in breast cancer

Metastatic triple negative breast cancer is an aggressive form of cancer that frequently affects young women (< 50 years) and is more prevalent in African American women. Unfortunately, even for patients where therapies are initially successful, the cancer inevitably progresses as tumors become resistant to therapy.

We will develop chemical reporters to assess the impact of protease activity on the tumor ecosystem and use companion multiplex imaging approaches to link these changes in protease activity to different immune cells and tumor growth

Leena Kadam, Ph.D., Olena Taratula, Ph.D., Leslie Myatt, Ph.D.

Novel targeted nanoparticles to improve detection and visualization of abnormal placentation

Proper placentation at the correct location and depth of invasion in the uterus is crucial for a successful pregnancy. One in fifty pregnancies in the US/year occurs outside the uterus (ectopic) and ~14,000 pregnancies have an abnormally invasive placenta (placenta accreta spectrum). Both conditions are extremely difficult to diagnose, are associated with significant maternal mortality and have a long-term impact on women’s mental and physical health.

Our group has developed a 40nm nanoparticle that selectively accumulates in placenta in pregnant mice and delivers imaging dye to enable high resolution imaging of placental structures using two imaging modalities. Our ultimate goal is to develop these nanoparticles for placental imaging and drug delivery needs in humans.

Lisa Karstens, Ph.D., Jean-Philippe Gourdine, Ph.D.

Better sweet bugs in the bladder: could urinary sugars help women with overactive bladder symptoms?

Overactive bladder syndrome affects one in six people, and most of them are women. It causes symptoms like urgency, frequency, nighttime voiding, and incontinence that can drastically affect quality of life. Until recently, little was known about the bacterial community that lives in the bladder. Drs. Karstens and Gourdine are studying the sugar molecules in the bladder that bacteria feed on and produce. Their goal is to understand how bladder bacteria modify these sugars and whether and how this benefits women’s health. Ultimately, their study could lead to new, effective therapies for women who experience overactive bladder syndrome.

(Samuel) Yiu Huen Tsang, Ph.D., Aurora Blucher, Ph.D.

Pharmacodynamic imaging-directed functional genomic screens to improve HER2-targeted therapy for breast cancer

Dr. Tsang is working with Dr. Blucher to inform treatment strategies and improve understanding of resistance for HER2 positive breast cancers. Currently, targeted therapy is not used for patients with HER2 mutations, but studies show that a high number of mutations are targetable. However, these patients suffer from a high risk of recurrence. For this project, Drs. Tsang and Blucher will use their newly-developed imaging platform to pair individual HER2 mutations with the targeted therapy that will be most effective and identify genetic factors that are associated with recurrence. This project will allow more patients to benefit from targeted therapies and could ultimately reduce recurrence rates for some survivors.

Martin J. Kelly, Ph.D., Oline K. Ronnekleiv, Ph.D.

Obesity and Alzheimer's Disease

Drs. Kelly, Ronnekleiv and colleagues developed STX, an estrogenic compound, as an alternative to hormone therapy that targets the brain but doesn’t cause side effects in other body systems. Their studies have shown that STX also protects against toxic amyloid proteins that are linked with Alzheimer’s disease. In this project, they will test whether STX protects the function of “Kisspeptin” neurons in the brain, that regulate things like appetite and metabolism. This is important because obesity and type-2 diabetes (insulin resistance) in older women are linked to increased risk of Alzheimer’s disease. Their study will help us learn if dysfunction in Kisspeptin neurons worsens Alzheimer’s disease, and will also lay the foundation for advancing STX to clinical trials for estrogen-dependent breast cancers.

Milky Kohno, Ph.D.

A Clinical Trial for Women with a Methamphetamine Use Disorder: Addressing the Critical Need to Identify Functional Brain Differences and Treatment Effectiveness

Dr. Kohno is conducting a clinical trial for women with a methamphetamine use disorder. Grant funds will go directly to supporting women to take part in the trial, allowing Dr. Kohno to identify and understand brain function and treatment effectiveness differences between men and women.

Wassana Yantasee, Ph.D., M.B.A., Amanda Lund, Ph.D., Shiuh-Wen Luoh, M.D., Ph.D.

Development of New Cancer Vaccines for Triple Negative Breast Cancer

Drs. Yantasee, Lund and Luoh are developing a new cancer vaccine for triple negative breast cancer. Using a novel delivery mechanism, their goal is to train women's own immune systems to fight cancer in a more personalized, efficacious, and cost-effective way.

Julie Saugstad, Ph.D., and Ursula Sandau, Ph.D.

New Role for ApoE4 in Female Predisposition to Alzheimer's Disease

Drs. Saugstad and Sandau will investigate test the hypothesis that sex-specific differences in brain-derived micro-RNA play an important role in exacerbating Alzheimer 's disease in women. Their work could provide new insight into the value of the ITSN1 gene as a therapeutic target for Alzheimer's treatment in women. It will also help define how exosome-derived micro-RNA may make women more prone to Alzheimer's disease.

Wei Huang, Ph.D.

Faster, Safer, and Low-Cost MRI for Accurate Diagnosis of Breast Cancer

Dr. Huang will work to develop a safer, faster and lower-cost MRI exam that can detect breast cancer with high accuracy and can be used following positive mammographic findings to improve diagnostic accuracy and reduce unnecessary biopsies. His goal is that the MRI exam will be fast, about ten minutes, and will not require the need for contrast injections, which currently make MRIs more expensive and unsafe for some women.

Jim Korkola, Ph.D. and Kimberly Beatty, Ph.D.

Identifying Molecular Interactions that Confer Drug Resistance in Breast Cancer

Dr. Korkola and Dr. Beatty propose to use new technology to investigate drug resistance mechanisms in HER2+ breast cancers. The technology will allow them to tag and track the locations and interactions of breast cancer receptors in cancer cells. This research could reveal new information about why patient responses to treatment varies and identify new opportunities for treating drug-resistant, HER2+ breast cancers.

Philip Copenhaver, Ph.D.

A novel estrogen receptor modulator for the treatment of Alzheimer's disease

Dr. Copenhaver and his collaborators will investigate the potential of STX, a novel selective estrogen receptor modulator, to have long-term protective effects on neurons in the brain. Ultimately, his research will be used to see whether STX can be used as an alternative to estrogen use in preventing dementia and Alzheimer's disease.

Pepper Schedin, Ph.D.

Unprecedented postpartum liver biology in rodents suggests a novel mechanism of breast cancer metastasis – a liver imaging study in pregnant women to establish human relevance

Dr. Schedin and her collaborators will investigate why young women suffering from postpartum breast cancer are at increased risk for developing metastatic cancer, specifically in the liver. She will study whether postpartum liver involution (shrinkage) occurs in women and if cancer cells that escape the breast during the postpartum period are more likely to survive in the changing liver, resulting in an increased risk for developing deadly metastatic cancer. Learn more

Stephen Yun-Chi Chui, M.D. and Paul T. Spellman, Ph.D.

Development of a blood-based system to detect residual disease after curative therapy in breast cancer

Dr. Chui and Dr. Spellman seek to develop a blood-based system to detect remaining cancer cells after therapy in triple-negative (and eventually all) breast cancers. In other words, Drs. Chui and Spellman hope to detect any tumor cells that might have escaped surgery, chemotherapy and radiation, only to metastasize later in a woman who was believed to be cancer free. The researchers hope that their new technique will help identify tiny amounts of cancer cells that are currently undetectable, and thus eventually enable treatment much earlier than is currently possible.

Knight Cancer Challenge grant recipient: Summer L. Gibbs, Ph.D.

Predicting breast cancer therapy outcome with 20-color immunofluorescence imaging

Dr. Gibbs will also work on innovative research involving triple-negative breast cancer. Working with Dr. Lisa Coussens, she will use a novel high-resolution 20-color immunofluorescence imaging technology to better understand the complex immunologic makeup of breast cancer and thus help develop  targeted treatment. Dr. Gibbs received this grant because the Circle of Giving contributed $125,000 to support the OHSU Knight Cancer Challenge. The Challenge is an unprecedented $1 billion effort to transform early detection and treatment of cancer and save countless lives. To date, more than $305 million has been raised of the $500 million needed to trigger an additional $500 million gift from Nike cofounder Phil Knight and his wife, Penny.

Rena Bahjat, Ph.D

Modeling stroke in female nonhuman primates to evaluate gender differences

The 2013 Circle of Giving grant was awarded to Rena Bahjat, Ph.D. who will evaluate the effect of loss of hormones on stroke outcome in aged female monkeys. The research will compare stroke outcomes on aged female monkeys as a model for post-menopausal women. Data suggests that sex differences in stroke risk and outcome may be due to sex hormones, which is further exacerbated by age. The study will evaluate the monkeys that receive supplemental estrogen compared to those who do not receive estrogen, including measurement of genomic, proteomic and metabolic changes. Dr. Bahjat will present the results of the research at the 2014 Circle of Giving Impact Meeting.

Wendy Wu, Ph.D.

Using Nimodipine (NimotopTM, an FDA-approved vasodilator) to maintain brain cell functions and cognitive performance after menopause

Wendy Wu, Ph.D. received the Circle of Giving grant in 2012 to research and identify biomolecules responsible for cognitive changes induced by estrogen loss. Wu’s aim is to target these biomolecules directly as treatment strategies in order to maintain cognitive performance following menopause. Using an animal model of menopause that exhibits learning and memory impairment, Dr. Wu has identified aberrant activity of a class of Ca2+ channels as the cause for brain cell dysfunction, which results in cognitive impairment. The support from the Circle of Giving has allowed Dr. Wu to initiate a series of behavioral experiments to evaluate the therapeutic potential of using NimotopTM, an FDA-approved drug specific to the affected Ca2+ channels, to restore cognitive functions in animals. Her research is ongoing.

Martha Goetsch, M.D., M.P.H.

Therapy to Prevent Sexual Pain in Menopausal Survivors of Breast Cancer

The 2011 Circle of Giving Grant was awarded to Martha Goetsch, M.D., for research that could lead to better solutions for women who experience sexual pain after surviving breast cancer. Goetsch’s study, which is still enrolling patients, seeks to learn more about where pain occurs, and to understand if a topical lidocaine liquid (numbing medicine) is an effective method of relieving pain.

Shoukhrat Mitalipov, Ph.D. and Paula Amato, M.D.

Correcting Mitochondrial Gene Mutations in Human Oocytes

Shoukhrat Mitalipov, Ph.D. and Paula Amato, M.D. received the fourth Circle of Giving Grant Award for their research into how mutations in mitochondrial DNA, inherited from a mother’s eggs, can cause serious disease.

Just a few years later, their team has developed a new method for preventing certain inherited diseases, the first to be successfully tested in humans.Their breakthrough research findings were published in the journal Nature. The project could not have moved forward without private philanthropy and support from the Circle of Giving, due to federal funding restrictions on human embryo and stem cell research. This study is currently being continued as a clinical trial with support from the LeDucq Foundation.

Philippe Thuillier, Ph.D., Tanja Pejovic M.D., Ph.D. and Nupur Pande, Ph.D.

Defining Molecular Cell Biology of Ovarian Cancer Stem Cells

In 2009 the Circle of Giving invested in Philippe Thuillier Ph.D., Tanja Pejovic, M.D., Ph.D., and Nupur Pande, Ph.D., a team conducting innovative research to define the molecular cell biology of ovarian cancer stem cells. Ovarian cancer is a deadly disease with limited treatment options. Better understanding of what can trigger ovarian cancer is crucial to developing the right tests for detection and treatment.

As an indirect extension of this research, the team received a two-year Ovarian Cancer Translational Award from the U.S. Department of Defense.

SuEllen Pommier, Ph.D.

Assessing Breast Cancer Stem Cells as Predictors of Treatment Failure in Recurrence in Breast Cancer

This grant helped Dr. Pommier’s team find new clues as to why drugs that target mutations in breast tumors aren’t effective in all patients. Their work is shedding light on mutations found in stem cells that could be causing some breast cancers to develop and may be the reason the disease recurs in some patients but not others. The Circle of Giving grant allowed the team to develop the preliminary data needed to secure additional funding, such as a $275,000 grant from the Avon Foundation.

Richard Stouffer, Ph.D. and Judy Cameron, Ph. D.

Menopause and Metabolic Syndrome: Androgen’s Role in Creating Cardiovascular Harm and Ovarian Cancer

The first grant from the Circle of Giving provided researchers with funding to investigate that the many ways menopause affects women’s bodies, including how it may be connected to threats such as heart disease and ovarian cancer.

OHSU leveraged this award into additional pilot money totaling $250,000 from the NIH Specialized Cooperative Centers Program in Infertility and Reproduction and Research. And, because the original grant allowed researchers to gather strong preliminary data, the NIH provided an additional $453,821 to the project between 2010 – 2012.

Additional grants that have been privately funded by Circle of Giving members

2018 John McConnell, Ph.D.
Integrating addiction and maternity care: lessons from Oregon

2015 Tanja Pejovic, M.D., Ph.D.
Targeting FANCD2 as a novel strategy for ovarian cancer treatment

2013 Melissa Wong, Ph.D.
End-stage breast cancer research project

2011 Leo Pereira, M. D.
Identification of cervical-vaginal biomarkers of recurrent preterm birth by proteomic

2008 Tanja Pejovic, M. D.
Pursuit of Novel Strategies to Prevent Ovarian Cancer

2007 Diana Rinkevich, M.D.
Elucidating the Role of Microvascular Dysfunction in Women’s Cardiac Disease