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The Tufts Daily
Where you read it first | Saturday, April 20, 2024

Four Tufts faculty members receive grants for women’s health research

School of Engineering faculty work towards innovative solutions for issues impacting women’s health.

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The Science and Engineering Complex is pictured on Sept. 18, 2019.

In late January, the Massachusetts Life Sciences Center  Women’s Health Initiative awarded grants to four Tufts faculty members to fund projects addressing the issue of inequities in women’s health research. Assistant Professors Nisha Iyer and Juan Gnecco, Professor Sameer Sonkusale and Frank C. Doble Professor Fiorenzo Omenetto received these grants towards their projects, which focus on understanding and solving issues related to women’s health.

According to the MSLC webpage, the grants are intended to incentivize researchers to develop projects that target this historically underrepresented field of study. Massachusetts recognizes there has been a lack of development in novel solutions to treat conditions that affect women solely, disproportionately, or differently. This impacts not only patients but also employers and the healthcare system,” the organization wrote on its website.

Iyer, an assistant professor of the Department of Biomedical Engineering, is using this grant to study the neurons which line the female reproductive tract, a potential source of chronic pain in females. She is working on constructing models using human stem cells, which will create a better understanding of human sensory perception.

“A lot of women get gaslit or are told that their pain doesn’t matter, and that’s usually problematic from a clinical standpoint,” Iyer said. “So being able to have models that help to demonstrate that that pain is real or trying to find solutions for the specific types and biological mechanisms by which women feel pain, I think, can really help with our experience as women.”

Iyer hopes that this in-vitro approach will better communicate pain specific to women’s reproductive health issues.

“People have made pain neurons from stem cells for a long time ... but no one has been able to make the specific sensory neurons, the specific cells that communicate pain that innervate the female reproductive tract,” Iyer said.

Gnecco, also an assistant professor of the Department of Biomedical Engineering, also hopes to gain a better understanding of chronic pain in females through research identifying the molecules which regulate inflammation in the female reproductive tract.

“[The project] is trying to look at the presence of very specific markers and molecules that regulate inflammatory processes in many other organ systems,” Gnecco said.  “We're trying to see if we can utilize our in-vitro model systems to dissect that [and] to understand if the uterus is expressing it.”

Like Iyer, Gnecco hopes that his research will ultimately help scientists develop cures for chronic pain in females in the form of drugs or therapeutics.

“Our goal is to identify the mechanism, okay, so identifying the mechanisms of how things work will allow us to understand and select targets that may be utilized for therapeutics downstream,” he said.

Sameer Sonkusale, professor of the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, takes a more ambitious approach with his project. His research focuses on understanding the effects of chronic stress, which has disproportionate effects on women.

“What we realized is that there is nothing to assess chronic stress in our daily lives.” Sonkusale wrote in an email to the Daily. “We intend to make smart textiles that [are] geared for women for monitoring stress in their day to day lives.”

Sonkusale is working on wearable technology in the form of a bra that will monitor stress levels by measuring heart rate and cortisol levels found in sweat.

Omenetto, a professor in the Department of Biomedical Engineering, is also designing wearable technology: a panty liner which uses silk-derived dyes to indicate the presence of certain biomarkers in vaginal discharge. These biomarkers can alert women to potential problems before they progress into serious health issues.

“You have a diagnostic basically printed on the panty liner, and basically [the molecules] will form a pattern that can be read out,” Omenetto said. “And depending on the pattern that appears, you have an indication of whether there's a yeast infection or whether there's BV or related things.”

Omenetto suggests that this technology could make healthcare more accessible for women by empowering them to take health into their own hands.

“We are very interested in developing a very cheap, discrete, personal, informative platform that can give an indication to the individual whether they need to maybe consult a physician or actually be in a position where they can make decisions for themselves,” Omenetto said.

Matthew Panzer, dean of research at the School of Engineering, endorsed the research of the four faculty members.

“I am extremely proud of these four grant recipients and all of our trailblazing faculty researchers in the School of Engineering for their tireless pursuit of innovative solutions to societal problems that will realize a brighter future for us all,” he said.