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Rare Womens Lung Disease May Yield Insights Into Common Diseases

For many decades, medical research studies focused primarily on men and the results of countless studies were then applied to women. But we now know that the biological sex and gender differences between men and women are more than skin deep. Beginning in 1990, the Society for Womens Health Research, a Washington, D.C., based advocacy organization, conveyed to a national audience the need for including women in biomedical research studies. Today, research on women is robust.

Biomedical research can make an enormous difference in the lives of women. Take Dr. Elizabeth Petri Henske, M.D., the recipient of the 2007 Society for Womens Health Research Medtronic Prize for Scientific Contributions to Womens Health. The prize was established to recognize a women scientist or engineer for her contributions to womens health and encourage women to work on issues uniquely related to womens health.

Henske is an oncologist at the Fox Chase Cancer Center in Philadelphia, Pa. Her work focuses on the genetic and cellular mechanisms leading to two diseases not well-known to the public: tuberous sclerosis complex (TSC) and lymphangioleiomyomatosis (LAM).

LAM is a lung disease that almost exclusively affects young women. LAM has a stronger female predisposition than lupus or breast cancer, and may have the strongest biological sex predisposition of any human disease, except for diseases of the genital organs, and it is often fatal. Scientists estimate that there could be as many as 250,000 LAM patients worldwide.

LAM affects young women, and can strike suddenly during pregnancy, Henske said. LAM causes the lungs to fill with abnormal cells. As a result, cysts or holes can develop in the lung, causing it to collapse. The disease takes a major toll on the body, making even mundane tasks difficult. Women with LAM often need oxygen, are continuously short of breath, and are unable care for their children or walk up a flight of stairs
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