Putting female scientists at the forefront of women’s health research
Dr Lynne Sykes is a consultant obstetrician at Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust and a clinical senior lecturer at Imperial College London’s Institute of Reproductive and Developmental Biology. As a specialist in pre-term birth, Lynne is seeking to understand what causes premature labour and how it can be prevented in the future. Her work, alongside a programme of research into women’s cancers, is being funded through a new partnership between the Trust, Imperial Health Charity and the Parasol Foundation. Here, Lynne explains how the partnership is supporting vital progress towards better women’s health while creating new career opportunities for female researchers.
A pathway to preventing pre-term birth
Pre-term labour is the biggest cause of infant death and disability in the UK. It accounts for 65 per cent of neonatal deaths and half of neurological disabilities as well as putting babies at heightened risk of developing complex conditions such as cerebral palsy.
My research is all about trying to understand what causes pre-term birth, how we might be able to predict it and whether in the future we can introduce new therapies that would prevent it from happening. My team and I are building on world-leading research that has taken place at our Trust over the last 25 years through the pre-term birth prevention clinics at Queen Charlotte’s & Chelsea and St Mary’s, and the Imperial College Parturition Research Group.
The research I’m working on is being funded through the Parasol Foundation Centre for Women’s Health and Cancer Research – a new research partnership established last year by the Trust and Imperial Health Charity and generously funded by Ruth Monicka Parasol and the Parasol Foundation. I’m grateful to have this fantastic support, which has provided me with the security to continue my research over the next five years. It means I can plan for the long term and work towards developing better treatments for women at risk of premature birth that will help them progress their pregnancy to full term.
Driving forward better women’s health – from ovarian cancer to infectious diseases
My research is just one example of how this research partnership with the Parasol Foundation is helping to drive forward better women’s health at Imperial.
Funding has also been committed to progress vital research into ovarian cancer, which remains a challenging and deadly disease. Despite advances in surgery and systemic treatment, research into screening programmes has shown no significant impact on outcomes – meaning we continue to see patients receiving treatment in the advanced stages of their cancer. Pioneering work led by Professor Christina Fotopoulou and Dr Paula Cunnea is investigating the complexities of ovarian tumours, helping us understand why some tumours become resistant to chemotherapy drugs and developing more personalised treatments.
This year we will also be launching a brand new research initiative exploring the links between infectious disease and pregnancy. A team of expert scientists led by research midwife Alison Perry will use thousands of blood samples provided by women as part of their maternity care to examine levels of immunity and infection during their pregnancy. A similar study in 2020 enabled scientists to track the spread of Covid-19, and it’s hoped that developing this approach further could enhance our knowledge of other infectious diseases like polio and rubella. The research could even help us learn more about future pandemics by pinpointing when and where viruses spread.
New opportunities for women to progress in healthcare
Alongside the research itself, the partnership is helping to break down barriers that prevent women from progressing in science and healthcare careers. Today, fewer than a third of the world’s researchers are women and only around 30 per cent of all female students choose science, technology, engineering and maths subjects in higher education. Obstacles remain in healthcare, preventing women from advancing their careers, achieving their ambitions and driving forward life-changing innovations.
As well as helping us improve care and treatment for women through dedicated research, the Parasol Foundation Centre is creating vital opportunities for female scientists by putting them at the heart of this work. Our research programme is empowering women to thrive in these fields, giving them the security and time to nurture their professional development and pursue a pathway to the top.
The Parasol Foundation Centre for Women’s Health and Cancer Research is a research partnership between Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust, Imperial Health Charity and the Parasol Foundation. Established in March 2022, it is focused on developing advanced treatments for women’s cancers and understanding the health impacts of pre-term birth.
For more information, please visit imperialcharity.org.uk/parasol