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Center for Excellence in Women’s Health launched

Experience, collaboration and support fuel new center

September 2013

by Natalie Gutierrez

Leslie Myatt, Ph.D.
Leslie Myatt, Ph.D., holds the widely used textbook "The Placenta: From Development to Disease," in which he authored a chapter in 2011 that examines comparisons between placental function in normal and abnormal pregnancies.
"Women are at the core of our lives and world," said Leslie Myatt, Ph.D.

For nearly 40 years, Dr. Myatt has dedicated his life to reproductive science and women’s health care. He focuses on applying basic bench research to clinical problems and translating his findings into better ways to diagnose and prevent diseases and disorders that plague women.

His passion stems partly from observing many of the strong women in his life. He describes his mother, aunts and two grandmothers as being determined and influential, yet sensitive and supportive of their spouses and family. As a young boy growing up in Yorkshire, England, Dr. Myatt remembers helping his family care for his paternal grandmother when she was diagnosed with diabetes, and his maternal grandmother during her final days battling bladder cancer.

Today, Dr. Myatt sees the same determination and support from his wife, Angela Elizabeth Myatt, with whom he has two children, George, 25, and Louise, 20. Angela earned her Master of Science in Information Science degree from the City University in London. She is an expert in information retrieval, teaches evidence-based medicine and serves as the curriculum liaison librarian for the School of Medicine at the Health Science Center.

Dr. Myatt said his wife has been the pillar holding their family together during some of their toughest storms. "Angela has single-handedly dealt with family crises during my frequent work-related absences, and even kept the children safe during two actual tornadoes and a hurricane that hit when I was out of town."

In 2008 while Dr. Myatt was in Austria attending a research conference, the powerful remnants of Hurricane Ike blew through Cincinnati, where they lived at the time, leaving behind a trail of destruction. "When I got home, there was a huge tree lying across our yard and driveway. Angela had taken care of our children and our home through it all. She is amazing," he said.

Myatt on a mission
Motivated by his family philosophy and insatiable quest for new scientific knowledge, Dr. Myatt is on a mission to help solve some of the most vexing problems affecting women today. In the process, he intends to help provide new opportunities for women scientists and physicians to lead these critical efforts.

"We still do not know what causes preterm labor or preeclampsia. These problems affect a vast number of women worldwide and have a tremendous emotional, societal and economic impact. These are just two areas where we have a lot of work to do."

Dr. Myatt is professor of obstetrics and gynecology and director of the Center for Pregnancy and Newborn Research. He came to the Health Science Center after serving as a faculty member for 22 years at the University of Cincinnati where he directed the National Institutes of Health (NIH)-funded Physician Scientist Training Program and the Women’s Reproductive Health Research Scholars Program.

"Pregnancy is where life begins for the child and is a critical time in the life of the mother," Dr. Myatt said. "It’s like a mapping system or computer programming, determining the future course of health for both the mother and child."

Dr. Myatt likened pregnancy to a "stress test" for the mother. "If a woman fails the stress test because she develops gestational diabetes or hypertension, that means she needs careful and regular follow up during and after she gives birth and, importantly, throughout the rest of her life." Failure of the stress test, Dr. Myatt said, could be the signal for a host of other disorders that the mother and child could develop in the future, including obesity, cardiovascular disease, metabolic disorders, cancer, diabetes or psychiatric or mood disorders.

Dr. Myatt and his research team study how genes interact with environmental factors such as pollutants, lifestyle, diet, stress, and disease during pregnancy, and affect the mother and child. They also study how the placenta regulates fetal growth and development as it supplies nutrients to the fetus. When the placenta is compromised by the environment inside or outside the womb, preterm birth can also occur. Dr. Myatt said that children born prematurely face serious and sometimes lifelong health problems.

Dr. Myatt has published more than 220 research papers in his field and has a long history of funding from the NIH.

Endowment opens window
This year, Dr. Myatt was named the holder of the Quincy and Estine Lee Endowment, funded by a gift from the Estate of Estine M. Lee and a matching gift from Francisco González-Scarano, M.D., dean of the School of Medicine and vice president for medical affairs. Dr. Myatt also was named the director of the newly created Center for Excellence in Women’s Health at the Health Science Center.

"The generosity of the Estine M. Lee Estate and the decision to create the center shows a strong commitment by this institution and the community to women’s health. It opened a window of opportunity for us to excel in this area," Dr. Myatt said. "Women comprise 50 percent of the patients we see throughout our Health Science Center and UT Medicine clinics.

Dr. Myatt explained that the national decline in federal funding for research and education that began several years ago triggered the closing of many centers for women’s health across the country, including the closing in 2007 of the center that had been established at the Health Science Center.

"It is time to rejuvenate and expand our efforts and attract additional funding," Dr. Myatt said. "A new dynamic center in women’s health here on our campus will re-establish us as having the only center of this kind in Texas."

Connecting and collaborating
The new Center for Excellence in Women’s Health will be a multidisciplinary, coordinated effort by multiple departments and community partners to connect, consolidate and advance all aspects and efforts of women’s health care, research, education, leadership and community service the Health Science Center offers.

A large portion of research conducted across the various schools concentrates on women’s health. Obvious areas include perinatology and gynecology. Dr. Myatt said the center will work to identify and emphasize additional research opportunities in areas that may not be so obvious but that affect large number of women. Obesity, diabetes, depression, cardiovascular disease and cancer are some of those.

"Furthermore, San Antonio is notable for its predominantly Hispanic population and significant military presence. These present unique opportunities for us to bring researchers together to strengthen existing programs and develop new discoveries that benefit these groups," Dr. Myatt said.

Health care partners such as University Health System, the South Texas Veterans Health Care System and the network of researchers across the nation, who are connected by the university’s Clinical Translational Science Award, will make valuable contributions. An advisory board, including community leaders, will help guide the center’s efforts.

Umbrella for growth
UT Medicine San Antonio, the clinical practice of the School of Medicine at the Health Science Center, offers comprehensive care for women of all ages. Most recently, UT Medicine created the Women’s Comprehensive Health Institute at its Medical Arts & Research Center (MARC). The institute serves as a one-stop destination where women can achieve annual health care assessments in one place on one single day.

Dr. Myatt said that under the umbrella of the Center for Excellence in Women’s Health, the new institute and other clinical programs will benefit from access to new community outreach efforts such as health fairs that invite women to participate in clinical and research programs offered by the university. Women’s health research seminars and annual symposiums are also planned.

"All of these programs working together enhance our research and clinical enterprises," Dr. Myatt said.

Through curriculum expansion and career development, fellowship and mentoring programs, Dr. Myatt said the center will also focus on increasing the number of female faculty, students and fellows participating in women’s health activities and increase the number of women faculty at the university overall. He said grant applications for funding support are underway.

Philanthropy crucial to success
Because the NIH and other state and federal funding sources have remained relatively flat for the past few years, Dr. Myatt said funding from private donors and foundationsis crucial to the success of the center.

"The generosity of donors like the Estine M. Lee Estate has given us the start. Now we hope the community will join with us to continue our momentum," he said.

One group that will help advocate for the center is the Council for Excellence in Women’s Health. Mary Henrich, wife of Health Science Center President William L. Henrich, M.D., co-chairs the council with Graciela Cigarroa, wife of Francisco G. Cigarroa, M.D., chancellor of The University of Texas System. They lead a group of more than 100 influential women community leaders from San Antonio and South Texas who volunteer and serve on the council.

The goal of the council, which was formed in 2007, is to improve the physical and mental health of women in San Antonio by building awareness for women’s health issues. Through various outreach activities, they promote a greater understanding and need for support of women’s health care programs and initiatives.

Since its establishment, the council has raised $84,000 (including matching funds from the President's Council), and has provided more than 32 scholarships to students enrolled in the five schools at the Health Science Center.

"I am excited and honored to be able to work with so many talented individuals at the university and partners in our community toward elevating women’s health care, research, education and outreach in this city," Dr. Myatt said.

"The Center for Excellence in Women’s Health is an opportunity that everyone can and should be a part of, and one for which everyone will greatly benefit in the long run."

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