Stanford Medicine Newsletter Updates For the Local Community


Breaking boundaries in studies of sex and health

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This spring marked the launch of the Stanford Center for Health Research on Women and Sex Differences in Medicine, known as the Stanford WSDM (“wisdom”) Center. There, Stanford scientists are encouraged to study sex differences in cells, tissues, animal models and human health outcomes and to emphasize women’s health. The center also aims to understand and reduce the health disparities experienced by men, whose lifespans are substantially shorter than those of women in all racial, ethnic and socioeconomic groups worldwide.

The center will unite the many Stanford faculty members conducting health research on women and sex differences in basic biology and the influence of gender on disease. It also plans to promote further research in all medical disciplines, as well as identify clinical areas (such as health issues in gay, lesbian and transgender people) that need to be recognized to provide health equity for everyone.

Marcia Stefanick, PhD, professor of medicine and of obstetrics and gynecology, and Lynn Westphal, MD, associate professor of obstetrics and gynecology, are co-directors of the center. Stefanick shared their plans for the Stanford WSDM Center.

Q: What was your ultimate goal in the creation of WSDM?

Stefanick: We’re eager to advance basic science of sex differences and similarities—something we believe Stanford geneticists, stem cell researchers and developmental biologists are well placed to do. We expect that our work will translate into better clinical practice for both women and men, and greater health for all ages across the population.

Q: Why is it important to focus not just on women’s health but also on sex differences?

Stefanick: Most basic research is done on males (in particular rodents, which show varying sex differences across strains); therefore we often lack even the basic understanding of female physiology. One example involves differences in drug metabolism, as women experienced significantly more problems than men for eight of 10 drugs that had to be pulled off the market in recent years.

Q: The traditional focus of women’s health has been on reproduction, fertility and diseases associated with female sex hormones. How will the work in the center move beyond that?

Stefanick: In general, every cell has sex, by having at least one X- and either a Y- or a second X-chromosome; therefore, the potential impact of “sex” on the functioning of every tissue and organ system is worth investigating, particularly in light of the powerful environmental factors associated with differences in reproductive hormones and function. Furthermore, our focus on reproduction is fraught with cultural biases that have resulted in misinterpretation of the data. For example, college students are still taught that the ovary is a “default” outcome of sexual differentiation, when in fact we now know that both ovarian and testes development are active, ongoing processes throughout women’s and men’s reproductive lives.

Q: One of the center’s goals is to investigate the influence of gender on biology and the role of gender medicine in health outcomes. Can you provide some examples of how that will be done?

Stefanick: Stem cell and other basic science researchers who have attended our events have gone back to their labs and examined their data on male vs. female animals, with similarities and differences they hadn’t expected, resulting in new research directions within their labs. We’re slowly bringing these scientists together to discuss such findings, with the expectation of new collaborations, innovative approaches and paradigm-shifting research within the next few years.

Q: The center’s emphasis extends beyond women. Why do you and Dr. Westphal feel so strongly that men need to be included? And how do you anticipate your work will benefit men?

Stefanick: We’re particularly keen to generate basic research that includes cells and tissues from both male and female animals. But we’re also eager to support the work of groups such as the Stanford March of Dimes researchers who are looking at the profound sex differences in human neonatal outcomes and neuroscientists who are investigating sex differences in brain pathology, such as autism and fragile X. To provide one example: Jennifer Tremmel, MD, director of Women’s Heart Health at Stanford and an advisory board member for our center, is training Stanford interventional cardiologists in radial angiography, a procedure that reduces bleeding complications in women undergoing angiography. It turns out the procedure is of benefit to men as well. She recently discussed this work on The Dr. Oz Show.

If you are interested in becoming involved in the Stanford WSDM Center, please contact You can stay abreast of the center’s work at

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