The often misdiagnosed disease endometriosis, and its possible link to environmental exposures, took center stage at March 3 briefings on Capitol Hill. Padma Lakshmi, host of the Bravo network show “Top Chef,” and Linda Birnbaum, Ph.D., director of NIEHS and the National Toxicology Program, spent the day working together to raise awareness about this challenging and often debilitating condition, and to stress the need for further research.
Lakshmi, co-founder of the Endometriosis Foundation of America (EFA), and Birnbaum met first with Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., a longtime champion of women’s health and environmental health issues. Schumer encouraged Lakshmi and Birnbaum to continue awareness efforts and expressed his interest in helping advance endometriosis research.
Birnbaum and Lakshmi also attended a lunchtime briefing that drew about 50 congressional staffers. The Environmental Working Group (EWG) sponsored the briefing, Endometriosis Awareness: Prevalence, Impact, and Environmental Dimensions of a Major Women’s Health Issue, which was moderated by Ken Cook, president and co-founder of EWG.
Endometriosis, a disease that affects about one in 10 women worldwide, occurs when cells from the endometrium, or lining of the uterus, exist outside of the uterus. The tissue responds to monthly hormonal cycles, forming lesions and causing a variety of symptoms, from digestive problems to infertility. Confirming diagnosis requires surgery, complicating matters for women experiencing symptoms.
Lakshmi’s foundation is dedicated to increasing recognition of endometriosis and funding landmark research. Her extraordinary commitment to sharing the facts of endometriosis stems from her difficult journey of more than 20 years, through pain so intense that Lakshmi was often sidelined one week out of every four.
Though the disease affects women, Lakshmi urged men involved in these women’s lives to also become more educated about endometriosis.
Environmental exposures implicated
Birnbaum focused on the role of environmental exposures, especially endocrine disrupting chemicals, which act like hormones. She pointed to studies that linked increased risk for endometriosis with exposures to endocrine disruptors, such as soy, bisphenol-A, and dioxins.
“Environmental factors are more readily identified and modified than genetic factors and, therefore, present a tremendous opportunity to prevent disease,” Birnbaum said.
NIEHS funds both in-house and grantee research on links between environmental exposures and endometriosis. Birnbaum highlighted research ranging from how endocrine disrupters affect cell signaling in endometriosis, to the molecular mechanisms underlying formation of lesions, and how mice exposed before birth may experience disrupted hormone behavior as adults.
A full day of discussions
After the briefing, Lakshmi and Birnbaum called on Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass.; Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y.; and Brian McKeon, chief of staff for Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H.
Gillibrand expressed interest in working with the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, as well as other professional medical groups, to update guidelines that can help practitioners increase accurate and early diagnosis of endometriosis. Each senator also expressed interest in helping expand funding for educational programs on the disease.
At the end of the day, they met with Nancy Lee, M.D., deputy assistant secretary of women’s health, and director of the Office on Women’s Health at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.