Warriors for women's health

A national leader in health disparities research and advocacy, Wayne State University is committed to achieving health equity across diverse populations. Women’s health continues to be paramount for our researchers, who are supporting women at every point in their lives — and impacting generations to come.

Breast cancer innovation

From helping to develop Tamoxifen to pioneering the first human breast cancer cell line (MCF-7), Wayne State has made lasting contributions in the fight against breast cancer — and, in true Warrior style, we’re not slowing down. Today, our researchers are breaking ground in breast cancer advancements that are echoing across the globe.

A visionary vaccine

Wei gained global attention in 2008 for creating a HER2 breast cancer vaccine that continues to be tested around the world

With a vaccine now in clinical trials, Wayne State is playing an instrumental role in combating breast cancer. Wei-Zen Wei, Ph.D., a professor of oncology and microbiology/immunology/biochemistry at the School of Medicine and the Herrick Chair of Cancer Research at the Barbara Ann Karmanos Cancer Institute, is leading critical research courtesy of a five-year grant from the National Cancer Institute.

Wei — who gained global attention in 2008 for creating a HER2 breast cancer vaccine that continues to be tested around the world — and her collaborators have been championing this breast cancer vaccine for more than 17 years. With their development of a laboratory model emulating the human body (complete with fully identified genes), they can test the vaccine as it targets molecules such as HER2 and HER3, which are present in various cancers.

By matching the vaccine to the genes or gene-regulating elements that determine response, Wei and her team are better able to identify patients who are more likely to benefit from vaccination — and design vaccines that will help more patients.

Beyond this vaccine, Wei is working with Nerissa Viola-Villegas, Ph.D., an assistant professor of oncology at the School of Medicine and the Barbara Ann Karmanos Cancer Institute, to expand the use of positron emission tomography (PET) in cancer therapy courtesy of a two-year, $368,445 grant from the National Cancer Institute of the National Institutes of Health.

Woman comparing substances in vials

Exploring all avenues

Michele Cote, Ph.D., wears many hats: She is an associate professor in the Department of Oncology at Wayne State's School of Medicine; a faculty member in the Department of Family Medicine and Public Health; an active member of professional organizations including the International Association for the Study of Lung Cancer, American College of Chest Physicians, Society of Epidemiologic Research, American Association of Cancer Research and International Genetic Epidemiology Society; and associate center director for education at the Barbara Ann Karmanos Cancer Institute.

Committed to closing the gap on cancer disparities, especially in underserved populations, Cote studies cancer epidemiology, molecular epidemiology of lung cancer and disparities in endometrial cancer survival — and she's made headlines for her breast cancer research in particular.

A two-time recipient of research grants from Susan G. Komen, Cote received her first grant of more than $888,000 in 2012 to study benign breast disease and the risk of breast cancer in African American women. Two years later, she received her second Komen grant of more than $404,000 to provide exemplary doctoral students with multidisciplinary training in the biology of breast cancer disparities.

I truly feel my work has just begun.

Michele Cote

In 2015, Karmanos recognized Cote at its annual Heroes of Breast Cancer event with the Dr. Michael J. Brennan Scientific Distinction Award. "I truly feel my work has just begun," Dr. Cote said upon accepting the honor. "There are still many interesting, important questions to be examined, particularly with respect to breast cancer disparities."

Hands holding pink breast cancer ribbon

Staying power

Cancer Research, the journal published by the American Association for Cancer Research, commemorated its 75th anniversary in 2016 by highlighting 48 of the most influential articles in the publication’s history. Among those recognized was a Warrior: Gloria Heppner, Ph.D., who recently retired as Wayne State's associate vice president for research.

Heppner was selected for her 1984 article, "Tumor Heterogeneity," which Cancer Research described as being "more often highlighted by editors, AACR Fellows and cancer researchers than any other [article]."

I worked hard on the article, and we went well over 1,000 reprints.

Gloria Heppner

Heppner, who served as a professor of internal medicine and assistant dean for cancer programs at Wayne State's School of Medicine, thought the article had been forgotten until about three years ago, when researchers began renewing their interest in the concept that cancer is a disease that involves a system, with subpopulations within tumors. Those subpopulations act differently within a tumor, making diagnosis and treatment challenging.

"I worked hard on the article, and it went over big," Heppner said upon learning of her recognition. "We went well over 1,000 reprints. I always felt it was my best article."

Caring for mothers and babies

Forward-thinking care for mothers and babies is crucial at Wayne State. After all, we’re home to the National Institutes of Health’s Perinatology Research Branch, where our researchers constantly set the standard. Here’s how Warriors are making monumental moves in maternal-fetal advancements.

New beginnings

Premature birth is the leading cause of infant mortality in Michigan. The state's rate of preterm birth (9.9 percent) exceeds the national average of 9.6 percent, and preterm birth costs the nation more than $26 billion each year.

Wayne State is playing a critical role in reducing the infant mortality rate, notably through the adoption of universal cervical length screening by ultrasound and the use of progesterone in women identified as high risk for premature birth.

Treatment with vaginal progesterone has been shown to reduce the rate of preterm birth, neonatal morbidity and respiratory distress syndrome.

Pregnant women with a cervix of less than 20 millimeters have a high risk for preterm delivery. The use of progesterone in women with a short cervix can reduce the rate of preterm birth by as much as 45 percent, according to a 2011 study by the Perinatology Research Branch of the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, National Institutes of Health, which was conducted at more than 40 centers worldwide. Wayne State was the lead center in the trial, led by Sonia Hassan, M.D., associate dean for maternal, perinatal and child health at the School of Medicine and a professor in the division of maternal-fetal medicine of the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology.

The ultrasound examination is simple to perform, painless and can be done between the 19th and 24th weeks of pregnancy. If a woman is found to have a short cervix, she can self-administer a once-daily dose of vaginal progesterone. Treatment with vaginal progesterone has been shown to reduce the rate of preterm birth, neonatal morbidity and respiratory distress syndrome. In addition to saving tens of thousands of lives each year, this screening makes a significant financial impact with an estimated savings of $19 million per 100,000 women screened.

Child hugging pregnant woman

Preventative medicine and health interventions

Paying it forward

Cynthera McNeill, D.N.P., APRN, AGPCNP-C, is a clinical professor and director of the adult-gerontology nurse practitioner program at Wayne State’s College of Nursing. The Detroit native is committed to using evidence-based, culturally sensitive interventions to decrease health disparities among at-risk populations. Her research interests include reproductive/sexual health and HIV prevention among adolescent girls in particular, and she recently co-authored “An Evaluation of Sisters Informing Healing Living Empowering: Increasing HIV Knowledge Among African American Adolescent Females Using an Evidence-Based HIV Prevention Intervention,” which was published in the Journal of Doctoral Nursing Practice.

Passionate about making a lasting impact in her community, McNeill launched Stomping Out, a peer-led initiative for high school students and young adults, in 2012 while earning her doctor of nursing practice from WSU. Now an annual event, Stomping Out aims to build awareness of health issues affecting youth ages 13 to 18 and increase self-efficacy to make positive health decisions. The interactive event features a resource fair that provides accurate, culturally sensitive and developmentally appropriate health information centered on an annual theme such as HIV/AIDS prevention, pregnancy prevention and diabetes.

Stomping Out has evolved into the umbrella organization S.A.V.E. T.H.E.M. (Stomping Away Various Epidemics by Teaching Health Education and Mentoring), a nonprofit McNeill launched in 2014 with fellow College of Nursing faculty Umeika Stephens, D.N.P., PMHNP-BC, FNP-BC, and Tara Walker, D.N.P., APRN, ACNP-BC.


A closer look

A board-certified specialist in obstetrics and gynecology, Brent W. Bost, M.D., is the author of The Hurried Woman Syndrome, a book named after the condition that affects millions of women typically between the ages of 25 and 55 with symptoms like fatigue, weight gain and low libido.

To examine Hurried Woman Syndrome, Parnell focused on Detroit-area African American women who carry multiple roles in society.

To examine Hurried Woman Syndrome, Regina Parnell, Ph.D., OTRL, assistant professor of occupational therapy at Wayne State’s Eugene Applebaum College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences, focused on Detroit-area African American women who carry multiple roles in society. "My research looked at 91 women between the ages of 25 and 55 who were married, employed and parenting at least one child," she said of the cohort she studied.

"There was a strong correlation between the set of symptoms that Dr. Bost identified, with the exception of the low libido," Parnell added, noting the presence of migraines as the third symptom she observed. Parnell found that most women coped through religion, planning and social support.

Inclusive innovation

Researchers in the Advanced Human Modeling Laboratory at Wayne State’s Bioengineering Center are working to close the gap between current safety testing and actual injuries sustained by vulnerable populations.

Current motor vehicle injury assessment tools do not typically account for varying body shapes and compositions among occupants.

In particular, current motor vehicle injury assessment tools such as crash test dummies and finite element (FE) human models do not typically account for varying body shapes and compositions among occupants. Because small elderly females are at greater risk of death and serious injuries in motor vehicle crashes than midsize young males, Warriors are developing an FE model aimed to represent a 75-year-old woman.

At the other end of the spectrum, head injury is the leading cause of pediatric death, with child abuse the leading cause of head injury in infants. Short falls, however, can be very common events as infants and young children learn to roll, climb and walk. Considering the limitations of current pediatric assessment tools, Warriors are developing a new concept of using subject-specific pediatric head FE models to provide more accurate injury assessment.