Women's Research Seminar Features 3 Trailblazers

Three Cedars-Sinai investigators discussed their careers and discoveries in leading-edge biomedicine at a seminar showcasing women researchers. The event, part of a celebration of National Women's History Month, drew a capacity crowd of more than 150 to Thalians Auditorium in March.

Sponsored by Academic Affairs, the seminar featured Kimberly Gregory, MD, MPH, professor, vice chair of Women's Healthcare Quality and Performance Improvement and director of the Division of Maternal Fetal Medicine in the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology; Suzanne Devkota, PhD, assistant professor of Medicine and director of Microbiome Research in the F. Widjaja Foundation Inflammatory Bowel and Immunobiology Research Institute; and Heather McArthur, MD, MPH, medical director of Breast Oncology.


Kimberly Gregory, MD, MPH

Kimberly Gregory, MD, MPH

"I wanted to deliver babies and help people," Gregory said, explaining why she entered medicine. Those interests led to her pioneering work in health services research, which delves into how patients experience delivery of care.

Funded by the Patient-Centered Outcomes Research Institute, Gregory has studied how expectant mothers' race, ethnicity, previous childbirth experiences and other factors may influence their priorities and ratings of childbirth services at hospitals.

In another initiative, Gregory is looking for ways to reduce caesarean sections, which compared with vaginal births carry higher costs and risks of complications for the mother and may adversely affect the baby's immune system. Despite successes in reducing the frequency of the procedure, "caesarean rates are still too high," she said. The current goal, set by the federal government, is 23.9 percent or lower.


Suzanne Devkota, PhD

Suzanne Devkota, PhD

Devkota presented her insights on the microbiome, which has been studied for only about a decade. This is the community of trillions of microorganisms, such as bacteria and fungi, that live in and on the human body. "We are mostly microbes," she explained. These fellow travelers can actually help our immune systems work better.

Devkota hypothesizes that over the last 50 years or so, the microbiome mix has been adversely altered by overuse of antibiotics, lack of physical activity and the move away from agrarian diets. The result, she believes, is a rise in autoimmune diseases such as Crohn's, which inflames the intestinal system.

Her current research focus is on fat that anchors the intestines to the abdominal wall and is a central feature of Crohn's. She wonders whether bacteria in the gut of Crohn's patients are translocating to this fat and causing inflammation. She hopes the answer one day will help these patients get better. "Every question we ask has to have to clinical relevance," she said. "This drives our research."


Heather McArthur, MD, MPH

Heather McArthur, MD, MPH

McArthur is working on the frontiers of another new biomedical field: immunotherapy, which boosts the body's natural immune system to fight disease. "These immune therapies are changing the face of how we treat breast cancer," she said. She explained how combining these new treatments with radiation, which breaks down tumors into tiny parts, can educate the body's immune system to recognize and attack cancer cells.

McArthur is particularly concerned with triple negative breast cancer, an aggressive subtype that tends to affect younger women and spread to other parts of the body. Palliative chemotherapy for these women whose cancer has metastasized can control disease, but resistance can develop quickly—leading to disease progression. Working with colleagues, McArthur is exploring whether adding immune therapy to local strategies such as radiation or tumor freezing (cryoablation) can confer durable anti-tumor responses and ultimately improve cure rates.

"I am so excited that our multidisciplinary breast cancer team at Cedars-Sinai is at the forefront of exploring the combination of radiation with immune therapy, with a goal of improving cure rates," McArthur says. "This is a very exciting time to be treating cancer, and breast cancer specifically."