Endometriosis, the invasive displacement of uterine tissue into surrounding organs, is thought to affect up to176 million women worldwide but the precise cause of the condition is not known. However, new research carried out by theMassachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the USA has uncovered cellular activity that may provide a better understanding of the mechanisms behind it.
In 2009, biological engineer Linda Griffith launched the Centre for Gynaepathology Research at MIT to study endometriosis and similar diseases. One of the goals was to learn more about the molecular and cellular basis of endometriosis so as to give scientists better drug targets and to help doctors decide how to best treat individual patients. The new research has now moved that goal a step closer by identifying a pattern of immune system signalling molecules that correlate with certain symptoms of endometriosis. They also identified the underlying cellular activity that produces this pattern.
The research team, led by Dr Michael Beste of the Department of Biological Engineering at MIT, says their findings may also help scientists create better drugs for the condition and help clinicians determine the most effective treatment for patients.
"We know there is a genetic component, we know there is an environmental component, and we know there is an inflammatory component. But it's very difficult to say for individual patients what particular sequence of events led to particular symptoms," Dr Beste said.
Symptoms of endometriosis include painful or heavy periods, pain in the lower abdomen, pelvis or lower back, and fertility problems although symptoms vary and some women may not have any symptoms at all. The research team says this can make the condition difficult to study.
"The delay to a conclusive diagnosis can range anywhere from 3 to 15 years. There's a real need in the field to improve our understanding of both the basic biology and the clinical manifestations of the disease to better treat and improve the quality of life of affected women" says Dr Beste.
They hope that these studies could open doors to new drug treatments for endometriosis and provide a better understanding of the mechanisms behind the condition.
Linda Griffith says: "This paper isn't to say we discovered the answer. We're trying to start a conversation with a broad translational science community about this because it is such a terrible disease. We found something really interesting, but it's only the tip of the iceberg, and if other clinicians are interested in setting up a similar study with their patients, we're happy to talk about collaborating with them."
The findings of the study were recently published in the journal Science Translational Medicine.