Minding the gap: Circle of Giving’s investment in women’s health research doubles in 2022

Laura Heiser, Ph.D. Heiser's in her lab; her research focuses on genomic and epigenomic changes that cause breast cancer Laura Heiser, Ph.D. Heiser's research focuses on genomic and epigenomic changes that cause breast cancer

Excitement brewed at the 2022 Granting Day celebration, marking the moment the OHSU Center for Women’s Health Circle of Giving gathers annually to award $125,000 in funding to women’s health research. This year’s edition was twice the thrill, as Circle of Giving members rallied to raise enough funds to invest in two innovative projects, for a total of $250,000 awarded. 

Join the Circle of Giving by donating

New strides in breast cancer research

Laura Heiser, Ph.D., and her colleagues Lisa Coussens, M.D., Ph.D., and Carsten Schultz, Ph.D., received the first grant. Their project, “A comprehensive approach to examine neutrophil elastase in breast cancer,” takes on the study of neutrophil elastase activity and its response to therapy in metastatic triple negative breast cancer, a highly aggressive form of the disease.  

The team unites top scientists to tackle breast cancer research: Dr. Heiser has an extensive background in cancer systems biology, Dr. Schultz brings knowledge in the development of reporter molecules to study tissues, and Dr. Coussens is a worldwide leader in tumor immunology. All three have their faculty appointments in the OHSU School of Medicine. Dr. Heiser is associate professor of biomedical engineering; Dr. Coussens is professor and chair of cell, developmental and cancer biology, and Dr. Shultz is professor and chair of chemical physiology and biochemistry. Their expertise will guide the three-part study in a collaborative effort to better understand how the function of neutrophil elastase in metastatic triple negative breast cancer tracks with disease progression and intervention. 

“We are honored to have been selected for this Circle of Giving award,” said Dr. Heiser, “This funding will allow us to begin a new multidisciplinary research project designed to improve outcomes for women with breast cancer.” 

Using nanotechnology to detect abnormal placentation

An unprecedented tie-breaker vote determined the second project to receive funding: “Novel targeted nanoparticles to improve detection and visualization of abnormal placentation.” This study is the work of Leena Kadam, Ph.D., Leslie Myatt, Ph.D and Olena Taratula, Ph.D. Dr. Kadam is research assistant professor and Dr. Myatt is professor and director of perinatal research in the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology. Dr. Taratula is associate professor of pharmaceutics at Oregon State University.

“We are excited to receive this funding support from the Circle of Giving,” said Dr. Kadam, “There is a critical need to improve our ability to locate the placenta and assess its function early in pregnancy, to quickly treat and manage early pregnancy-related complications, and to reduce maternal mortality rates.” 

Ectopic pregnancies account for 1 in 50 pregnancies in the United States, and approximately 14,000 pregnancies annually have an abnormally invasive placenta (placenta accreta spectrum, or PAS). Diagnosing these early is a challenge. Bleeding from ectopic pregnancies is responsible for 16% of visits to the emergency room for women in early pregnancy. Abnormally attached placentas can lead to emergency hysterectomies and even maternal deaths after delivery. Using nanoparticles, the researchers aim to improve early detection as well as test delivery of targeted treatment.   

“With the Circle of Giving’s help, we are developing a game-changing nanomedicine-based technology for detection of placental location and structure,” Dr. Kadam added, “This technology will allow for early detection of serious complications, and it will enable safe clinical management.” 

Addressing the women’s health research gap

Since 2006, the Circle of Giving has supported groundbreaking women’s health research in an effort to fill the research gap left by decades of medical research focusing on diseases mostly affecting men. To date, the Circle of Giving has invested nearly $3 million in 27 research projects, taking on Alzheimer’s disease, ovarian cancer, menopause, and more.  

“We have so many Circle of Giving members committed to furthering incredible research in women’s health,” said Patti Warner, Circle of Giving co-chair, “We have made tremendous progress in the 16 years since we began giving grants to researchers who were just getting started, who are now bringing back millions to OHSU to continue that research.” 

Learn more about the organization, membership, and previous awardees by visiting the Circle of Giving page