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National chair at UM supports research on gender differences in respiratory health

April 27, 2020 — 

Women with asthma tend to experience more severe symptoms than men. Women are also more likely to be non-responders to steroid treatments for the disease.

“That means women are more likely to develop uncontrolled asthma than men,” says Dr. Neeloffer Mookherjee, a UM immunologist whose research focuses on lung inflammation. “Yet these sex-related differences have largely been ignored in drug development research, which has taken a one-size-fits-all approach.”

The associate professor of internal medicine and immunology in the Max Rady College of Medicine says scientists are only beginning to investigate how disease risk, disease progression and response to treatment differ between the sexes in many illnesses.

Mookherjee’s expertise in this emerging approach to research has earned her a prestigious, four-year funded position as Canada’s first Sex and Gender Science Chair in Circulatory and Respiratory Health.

The chair is the only one focused on circulatory and respiratory health among 15 new chairs awarded across Canada by the Institute of Gender and Health, which is part of the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR).   

“This entire field of incorporating sex and gender-based analysis into biomedical and health research is very new,” the professor says. “Canada is becoming a world leader in this field, and this chair will allow my lab to be at the forefront of advancing it. The ultimate goal is personalized medicine that tailors treatment to individual characteristics, including gender.”

Mookherjee, a UM faculty member since 2008, studies the molecular processes involved in chronic inflammation. In her lab at UM’s Manitoba Centre for Proteomics and Systems Biology, she conducts some of her experiments using mice, and others using human lung cells.

It has long been standard practice, she says, for immunologists to study mice or human lung cells of only one sex, meaning that gender has not been examined as a variable.

“Very recently, data has started coming out that the immune response perhaps is wired differently in males and females,” she says. “That has been the impetus to take sex differences into account in designing experiments and analyzing data.”

One reason that new treatments are needed for asthma, Mookherjee says, is that both chronic lung inflammation and the steroid drugs that control it can weaken the immune system. That makes asthma patients susceptible to infections, including respiratory viruses like COVID-19. 

The professor’s current asthma research focuses on innate defence regulator (IDR) peptides, which are synthetic versions of human “defender” molecules. She is one of only four or five researchers in the world who study these peptides in the context of lung inflammation. In 2018, her team was the first to publish evidence that IDR peptides are effective against asthma.

“The advantage of these peptides is that they can control both inflammation and infection,” Mookherjee says. Her lab has identified IDR peptides that control airway inflammation in mice and show promise in treating severe asthma that is unresponsive to steroids. Now she will investigate sex-related differences in the peptides’ effects on the immune system.

A unique aspect of Mookherjee’s CIHR chairship is that it includes dedicated funding for outreach, communication and capacity-building. The idea is for the chair-holder to promote sex and gender-based analysis and to mentor other scientists in it through events such as workshops and symposia.

Mookherjee is the founder of Women in Science: Development, Outreach and Mentoring (WISDOM), a Manitoba organization based in the Rady Faculty of Health Sciences that works to address the under-representation of women in science.

She also belongs to a number of other networks and groups, such as the Biology of Breathing Group at the Children’s Hospital Research Institute of Manitoba. “Through these affiliations, I’ll be able to advocate for sex and gender-based analysis and train researchers to integrate it into their own research programs,” she says.     


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