The Institute’s research into women’s health has its origins in IVF; research that resulted in Australia’s first IVF baby in 1980. Today, women’s health researchers also focus on pelvic organ prolapse, endometriosis, endometrial cancer, breast cancer and pregnancy disorders. Studies also continue into how the IVF process can be improved for mother and baby.
Pelvic organ prolapse
Fifty percent of all women will develop a pelvic organ prolapse by the time they are 80 years old and 19 percent will have at least one operation to correct incontinence, the most common symptom. A pelvic organ prolapse is a weakening of the vaginal wall and the muscular and ligament support structures supporting the uterus, bladder and bowel. Often one or more of these organs can protrude or herniate into the vagina. It results from damage to the support structures during childbirth which further deteriorate over time. The condition is most common in older women who have had children, but it also affects young women during and following pregnancy. The discovery of adult stem cells in the endometrium (lining of the uterus) by MIMR researchers in 2005 now provides an exciting opportunity to use these remarkable cells together with a synthetic scaffold to support the pelvic floor of women who suffer pelvic organ prolapse.
Up to ten percent of women in their reproductive years suffer from endometriosis; a painful condition in which endometrial tissue grows outside the uterus, most commonly on the organs and tissue of the pelvic cavity. It can cause severe chronic pain and is a leading cause of infertility in women. MIMR researchers have developed a model that will be used in conjunction with ongoing studies into endometrial stem cells, in a bid to better understand how and why this disease develops.
Endometrial cancer, also known as cancer of the uterus, is the most common invasive gynaecological cancer in Australia. It affects 1 in 75 women by the age of 75. It is most common in women aged between 50 and 70, but also occurs in younger and overweight women. There are several subtypes of endometrial cancer, some with a poor survival rate. MIMR researchers are carrying out further research with endometrial stem cells to determine the role they play in the onset and pathogenesis of endometrial cancer.
Breast cancer is the most commonly diagnosed cancer in Australian women; in 2010 it was estimated 14,000 women would be diagnosed with the disease. It is believed the number of women diagnosed with breast cancer will continue to increase as the Australian population grows and ages. This predicted increase is a major concern as breast cancer already has the second highest mortality rate in Australian women after lung cancer. MIMR’s breast cancer research focuses largely on recurrent and metastatic (tumours that have spread to other parts of the body) breast cancer. Current treatments improve patients’ quality of life by reducing symptoms and controlling the spread of cancer, but there is no cure for cancer that has spread outside of the breast and into other parts of the body. MIMR researchers are also investigating methods of individualising radiotherapy treatments for breast cancer patients, in a bid to avoid adverse reactions to the treatment.
Preeclampsia remains a major cause of maternal and perinatal mortality and morbidity. Despite decades of research the fundamental treatment for preeclampsia hasn’t changed in over 50 years. The Institute has a program of basic research focussed on the underlying mechanisms leading to preeclampsia. This work has identified new pathways causing maternal hypertension and placental dysfunction and is leading to the preclinical development of new treatments. Together with collaborators in the Department of Pharmacology and in the Centre for Green Chemistry at Monash, MIMR scientists are leading the way in the future of preeclampsia treatments.
Stress is recognised as a key trigger for preterm birth but what links these events remains unclear. MIMR scientists are exploring how stress can trigger birth and how preterm birth may be avoided, at least in some women.
Fetal growth restriction remains a major cause of stillbirth and of brain injury such as cerebral palsy. To date, there are no treatments for fetal growth restriction. MIMR scientists have shown how the developing brain is damaged in the growth restricted fetus and are now testing new treatments that may protect the developing brain from injury. This fundamental, experimental research has formed the basis for innovative clinical trials that are set to change how we look after these very fragile pregnancies forever.
 National Institute of Health NCI. 2009. Endometrial Cancer 2/9/2009.
 National Breast and Ovarian Cancer Centre. 2010. Report to the Nation-Breast Cancer 2010.