In 2007, a small group of women’s health researchers gathered around a conference room at the Brigham to share insights about their latest discoveries and, distressingly, the tremendous gaps remaining in science’s understanding of how a person’s sex influences disease.
That once-intimate gathering has since grown into a dynamic annual fundraising event supporting and showcasing the groundbreaking work of the Mary Horrigan Connors Center for Women’s Health and Gender Biology before an audience of hundreds of philanthropists, business leaders and women’s health advocates.
This year’s event, held May 6 at the Omni Boston Hotel at the Seaport, marked not only its 15th anniversary but also the luncheon’s first in-person format since 2019. Aptly themed “Finding Our Voice,” the luncheon also coincided with a time when women’s health, specifically reproductive health, is the subject of contentious national debate.
“It is clear that our mission to protect and advance the health and lives of women is more important than ever,” said Hadine Joffe, MD, MSc, executive director of the Connors Center.
Brigham President Robert S.D. Higgins, MD, MSHA, underscored the institution’s unwavering commitment to supporting and advancing all facets of women’s health.
“At the Brigham, we continue to uphold our longstanding mission to provide safe, accessible and high-quality care to all patients who seek it. We deliver care with compassion and without judgment,” said Higgins, who also serves as executive vice president at Mass General Brigham. “We remain patient-centered and focused on achieving the best outcomes. Our commitment to providing high-quality care is importantly inclusive of all women — particularly those from historically disadvantaged backgrounds.”
Uncovering Gaps, Asking Questions
More broadly, speakers noted, women’s health research has made significant strides in recent years — but also still has a long way to go. Throughout that time, the Connors Center has been at the forefront of advocating for meaningful change in the field, Joffe said.
“Fifteen years ago, scientists doing preclinical research were not required to consider sex when they studied animals, tissues or cells. What this means is that research at its most fundamental level and its starting point did not account for the most basic biological differences that exist between females and males,” she explained. “This left us without a clear understanding of how sex influences health and disease, but it left us with medications, medical treatments and guidelines that were not calibrated for women’s specific biology or life experience.”
Several years ago, Connors Center scientists were among those who testified before Congress about this gap. That advocacy contributed to the National Institutes of Health’s 2016 policy requiring scientists to include females and sex-specific information in data they report out, Joffe said.
One compelling and timely example of the need to better understand how sex influences disease can be seen in the condition that has come to be known as “long COVID,” or post-acute sequelae of COVID-19, in which a person who has recovered from the initial COVID-19 infection continues to experience lingering symptoms like fatigue, muscle pain, migraines and cognitive struggles.
Scientists are learning that women are three times more likely to experience long COVID than men, yet the reason for that disparity remains unclear, said Bruce Levy, MD, chief of the Division of Pulmonary and Critical Care Medicine and one of the luncheon’s three featured speakers.
Levy noted that Brigham clinicians and researchers are leading the way nationally in efforts to deliver personalized care to long COVID patients through the COVID Recovery Center and better understand the condition through the Greater Boston COVID Recovery Cohort.
“There are still many long COVID patients we don’t have answers for,” Levy said. “More research is desperately needed, but there are many patients with long COVID who benefit from the care provided at specialized centers like ours.”
The event also featured remarks from Anita Hill, JD, university professor of Social Policy, Law and Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies at Brandeis University, and Annie Lamont, first lady of Connecticut and co-founder and managing partner of Oak HC/FT, a venture capitalist firm whose focus includes health care startups.
Reflecting on what it takes to transform women’s health and address inequities, Hill emphasized that research and advocacy must go hand in hand.
“I know we can be, already are and will continue to be the catalyst for the solutions that we are waiting for,” she said. “Find your voice, use it and make change happen.”
The luncheon raised more than $700,000 to fund women’s health research — $150,000 of which was pledged during the event to fund new IGNITE Awards, which provide direct support to Connors Center scientists who are conducting groundbreaking research in women’s health.