Tufts research advancing women’s health

Four School of Engineering faculty members recently received grants for research related to improving women’s health.
From left to right: Assistant Professor Nisha Iyer, Assistant Professor Juan Gnecco, Professor Sameer Sonkusale, Frank C. Doble Professor Fio Omenetto.

Despite ongoing progress towards gender equality in medical care around the world, disparities in women’s health are still prevalent, affecting both the level of care that women receive and medical understanding of conditions specific to women. Four Tufts University School of Engineering faculty members recently received grants from the Massachusetts Life Sciences Center (MLSC) Women’s Health Initiative for four separate projects, each addressing an understudied aspect of women’s health.

The grants, which include First Look Awards for Assistant Professor Nisha Iyer and Assistant Professor Juan Gnecco, and Women’s Health Innovation Grants for Professor Sameer Sonkusale and Frank C. Doble Professor Fiorenzo Omenetto, promote research in health issues that disproportionately affect women, in an effort to narrow the gender disparity in medical knowledge and research. 

In-vitro modeling of women’s reproductive systems 

Medical research has historically focused on male bodies and physiology, leaving female-specific functions and anatomy understudied. As a result, women’s pain is more frequently dismissed or misdiagnosed, particularly in the reproductive tract. Assistant Professor Nisha Iyer of the Department of Biomedical Engineering is working towards bridging this gap with an in vitro model made of human pluripotent stem cells (hPSC), seeking to improve understanding of human female sensory perception. 

Rather than use “generic” hPSC-derived sensory neurons that have been available for more than a decade, Iyer will develop a new protocol to make sensory neurons that specifically innervate the female reproductive tract. This work builds on her previous research, using hPSCs to efficiently generate motor and somatosensory spinal cord neurons from any region of the body. Iyer will use male and female-derived motor neurons and sensory neurons to investigate neuroprotective vs. neurodegenerative effects of the hormone estradiol. “Hormone levels fluctuate significantly throughout a woman's life, and these changes have implications on pain perception and management in ways that we don’t fully understand,” says Iyer.  

Insights from these experiments will inform more complex models to understand how women experience pelvic pain, with implications for more informed pain diagnosis and treatment based on sex-specific differences in neuroanatomy.  

Iyer has been teaching and conducting research at Tufts since 2022 and focuses on using stem cells to understand and advance neural repair. She believes this project is “just a first step towards creating more accurate ‘pain-in-a-dish’ models that could eventually be used to develop personalized strategies for pain management across diverse populations.”

Assistant Professor Juan Gnecco of the Department of Biomedical Engineering was also awarded an MLSC First Look award focused on advancing a better understanding of women’s health by studying inflammatory signals across the menstrual cycle. Conditions specific to women’s reproductive health, such as endometriosis – in which tissue similar to the mucus lining of the uterus grows outside of the uterus and causes debilitating pain – remain understudied in clinical medicine due to a poor understanding of the underlying mechanisms driving menstrual health. Through his research, Gnecco seeks to unlock the mechanisms regulating reproductive function in health and disease.

A lack of humanized models that enable the mechanistic study of the endometrial tissues have hindered advances for these gynecological conditions. This project builds on Gnecco’s previous work using organoids and synthetic biomaterials to study the endometrium.  He will build an in vitro organoid model to study how inflammatory circuits are regulated in endometrial tissues. Gnecco expects his tissue engineered models will enable insight into how sex hormones control acute inflammatory events across the human menstrual cycle. 

Gnecco believes that lipid mediators are responsible for tightly regulating immune behavior and tissue function by controlling the level of inflammation over the course of the menstrual cycle. He plans to leverage knowledge of eicosanoid signaling to investigate how inflammation is regulated in the endometrium with the goal of identifying potential treatment strategies for chronic-inflammatory diseases.

Gnecco joined Tufts in 2022 and leads the Laboratory for Reproductive Engineering. His research lies at the interface of tissue engineering and reproductive biology to understand the immune-endocrine mechanisms driving women’s reproductive physiology and disease pathogenesis. 

The MLSC First Look grant awards early-stage research that has implications for improving women’s health. The MLSC offers this award in collaboration with the Mary Horrigan Connors Center for Women’s Health and Gender Biology at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Harvard Medical School. “Innovations in precision medicine will require a deeper fundamental understanding menstrual health because women’s health is human health,” says Gnecco.

Wearable technology for women’s health monitoring 

Professor Sameer Sonkusale of the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering and Frank C. Doble Professor Fiorenzo Omenetto of the Department of Biomedical Engineering each received MLSC Women’s Health Innovation grants, which support projects focused on women’s health that are in the early stages of development. Sonkusale and Omenetto both proposed wearable products that would allow women to independently monitor their health and would generate accurate real-time data to advocate for treatment if needed.

Sonkusale plans to develop a smart garment in the form of a bra that measures bio-physical potentials, such as respiration rate and heart rate variability, as well as sweat-based biomarkers including cortisol and lactate for the detection and management of chronic stress. Women are disproportionately impacted by chronic stress, which can result in increased risk of anxiety and depression, and other negative health effects. 

Rather than relying on one indicator of stress levels, Sonkusale’s product would continuously monitor several biophysical and biochemical markers in a non-intrusive way, leading to increased accuracy of measuring stress. Data from the sensors would connect to a smartphone app developed in conjunction with the bra. Continuous, real-time monitoring would allow women to identify potential stressors in the moment and empower them to take steps to reduce their stress levels before they become too high. 

Sonkusale first joined Tufts in 2004. In Tufts NanoLab, he leads a research team that designs and develops devices including miniaturized nano-enabled sensors for human health and the environment; low power circuits that can compute at a fraction of a volt; and imagers that can see the invisible terahertz band and detect fluorescence. 

This project builds on Sonkusale’s previous work developing sensor technology and electronics and would be the first bra-based health monitoring product that works with fluid-based substances. “A lot still needs to happen to alleviate the disproportionate burdens that lead to women’s chronic stress levels, but I see this project as a step in the right direction towards improving women’s mental health on a large scale,” he says.

Professor Fiorenzo Omenetto of the Department of Biomedical Engineering also sees his project as a move towards empowering women in managing their health. Bacterial vaginosis is one of the most frequently experienced vaginal infections, and some persistently recurring types can be difficult to manage. Current methods for detecting bacterial vaginosis involve testing vaginal pH levels, which only collect data from the moment of testing. Omenetto is developing a panty liner with multisensing capabilities that would help women detect and monitor the presence of bacterial vaginosis in real time.

The smart panty liner would offer continuous monitoring which would allow women to track their bacterial levels over time and potentially gain better insight into fluctuations in their system. Using bio-responsive silk inks printed on panties, the wearable product would use the multicolored ink to decipher the user’s health status. Users could discreetly monitor their bacterial levels through an app that uses machine learning to provide the most accurate and up-to-date information and tracking. According to Omenetto, his project provides “not just a gynecologist in a pocket but a sneak peek of the future of women’s health empowered by innovation in the biotech industry.” 

Omenetto leads Tufts Silk Lab, which investigates silk’s unique properties for a variety of purposes including implantable devices, 3D models of the brain, a protective barrier for food, and more. He joined Tufts in 2005 and has research interests in ultrafast nonlinear optics, nanophotonics, and biopolymer multifunctional materials. 

Embedding technology into wearable devices would integrate health monitoring into users’ lives more seamlessly, removing the need to carry extra equipment or to only monitor at certain points of the day. Sonkusale and Omenetto’s products both aim to give women a better understanding of their health in real time, and by extension more confidence to manage conditions as they arise. 

The future of women’s health

Researchers at Tufts are on the leading edge of women’s health innovation, as recognized by the MLSC grants. Faculty members across Tufts regularly strive to apply their research for social good, in this case rectifying the disparities in women’s health knowledge and treatment. In a similar vein, the MLSC also recently awarded Professor Qiaobing Xu a grant for his work perfecting drug delivery across the blood brain barrier using synthetic lipid nanoparticles. That research is not specific to women’s health but maintains the overall focus on improving people’s quality of life through engineering innovation. 

Whether through in vitro modeling or the development of wearable technology, each of the projects funded by the MLSC Women’s Health Initiative has implications for bettering the quality of medical care for women. As tissue engineering, biotechnology, and other growing engineering research fields continue to expand, Omenetto believes that women’s healthcare will continue to improve as well. “In the future, women will be more liberated from the limitations of the health industry, become their own health advocates, and feel more confident and powerful about their bodies,” he predicts.