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Expanded research institute at Magee grows in stature


By David Templeton, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Tony Tye, Post-Gazette
Dr. James M. Roberts, director of Magee-Womens Research Institute, talks with Lisa Cencia Rohan, associate investigator in a lab.

Experts in women’s health research have long recognized the importance that Magee-Womens Research Institute has played in women’s health.

In recent years even Oxford University called MWRI Director Dr. James Roberts in hopes of using it as a model for its own research institute in women’s, infant’s and reproductive health.

And, as Dr. Roberts told Oxford, MWRI’s success draws from the presence of a large women’s hospital in a large population center with research support from the University of Pittsburgh and the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center.

Consider that Magee-Womens Hospital has more than 9,000 deliveries a year, just as many surgical procedures, with nearly 55,000 outpatient visits, making it a major center for women’s health.

But there is one little problem: Few local people know the research institute exists at the intersection of Forbes and Craft avenues in Oakland.

Dr. Roberts simply tells them it is next to Point Park University’s Pittsburgh Playhouse, across the street from Magee-Womens Hospital.

A grand opening of the institute that has been expanded from 50,000 to 127,000 square feet will be held tomorrow.

In the meantime, Dr. Roberts said he is stepping down as director to return to research with a focus on pre-eclampsia. The search for his replacement is nearing completion.

“It’s been amazing to me over the years that we got calls from Oxford, and are No. 1 in funding [in the nation in obstetrics and gynecology],” he said. “But you always have to say we’re the building next to the Playhouse. People don’t know we exist.”

MWRI has about 260 employees with an annual budget of $35 million to $40 million, with $180 million in long-term studies underway. The latest is an international study of $11 million per year to develop a microbicide that women can use to prevent HIV. The research involves 20 research groups with MWRI serving as administrative hub.

The expanded institute includes extensive laboratory space that will serve as an even stronger magnet to attract top researchers and more research dollars in women’s health.

For now, Dr. Roberts and others agree, the institute stands as the premier research center in women’s, infant’s and reproductive health nationally.

Design of the building with common laboratory areas surrounded by offices will encourage research collaboration. The design also will save $180,000 a year in energy costs.

The institute has 90 collaborative researchers, many housed at the institute, with others situated on the Pitt campus and other city locations. The research staff also includes researchers with post-doctoral degrees and laboratory technicians.

“Our biggest commodity is laboratory space,” said Deborah W. Linhart, president and chief executive officer of Magee-Womens Research Institute and Foundation. “There is a dearth of lab space in Oakland and that has curtailed growth. To a researcher, space, grant money and intellectual freedom are important, and space can be even more important than the money.”

Dr. W. Allen Hogge, chairman of Magee’s Department of Obstetrics, Gynecology and Reproductive Sciences, said research touches on all major areas of women, infant and reproductive health.

“This is a tremendous perspective for bringing research dollars into Pittsburgh,” Dr. Hogge said.

For now about 85 percent of grant money comes from the National Institute of Health, with Magee’s obstetrics and gynecology department being the No. 1 recipient of NIH funds nationwide. Other money comes from the state and foundations including the Magee Foundation.

Over the years, research projects included treatment for premature labor and infections during pregnancy. Others studies showed what treatments for pre-eclampsia did not work. In a clinical trial to prevent pre-eclampsia, 10,000 women from 14 participating sites nationwide will participate in a study to determine whether antioxidant vitamins lessen the risk of pre-eclampsia, reduce maternal and fetal mortality rates and increase birth rates.

Another project underway is a study of pharmaceuticals used during pregnancy. Other cutting-edge research focuses on pelvic floor disorders and urinary incontinence.

“We are investigating the best surgical and nonsurgical treatments [for incontinence] and why it happens,” Dr. Hogge said. “One investigator is looking at how to prevent it from happening.”

With larger facilities, the institute will push harder for a greater percentage of research dollars available for women’s health, including money to explore problems unrelated to reproduction. The idea that many biological processes are gender-specific led to creation of the institute in 1993.

In recent years, program analysis has shown it to be one of the nation’s best, prompting the decision to more than double the size of its building, add researchers and expand the focus to embrace a full spectrum of women’s health.

That includes research into heart disease, cancer and other problems women face that differ biologically from how those diseases affect men.

“What this means for the city of Pittsburgh is that we have a leadership role in women’s health agenda in the country, and we can make a difference for the health of women,” Dr. Hogge said.

As Ms. Linhart said, the institute "is built on pure passion for women’s health.

“I think it has attitude,” she said. “It’s a force.”


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