An Advocate for Women’s Health
Date: June 7, 2013
In the mid-1990s, Janine Austin Clayton, then a fellow in cornea and external diseases at Hopkins’ Wilmer Eye Institute, first became aware of the role that sex and gender play in health and disease. She met a 70-year-old patient whose “immune cells were attacking her eyes and melting the tissue”; the legally blind woman had Sjogren’s syndrome, an autoimmune disease that affects nine women for every one man. Clayton performed her first corneal transplant on the patient, and, today, still shares pictures of the woman’s eyes in her talks. The experience is one of many that have prepared Clayton for her recent appointment to director of the NIH Office of Research on Women’s Health (ORWH) and associate director for Research on Women’s Health at the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
Clayton, who has authored or co-authored more than 80 research papers about eye diseases, chose to specialize in ophthalmology because it combines medicine and surgery, allowing her to use both medications and hands-on interventions to treat disease.
After her fellowship at Hopkins, Clayton did a second fellowship at the National Eye Institute (NEI), where she noticed that more female patients had uveitis, another autoimmune ocular disease. Then, during a consult in 2003, Clayton, who was in the middle of a seven-year stint as NEI’s clinical director, found that a 20-year-old patient who was already being treated at NIH for premature ovarian failure also had dry eye, a condition that primarily affects older women. After reading that young women with this disease often have estrogen and androgen levels low enough to indicate menopause, she designed a study and discovered a type of dry eye syndrome that can be associated with premature ovarian failure in 18- to 25-year-old women.
Now Clayton wants other researchers across specialties to consider how sex and gender affect their work. “Understanding that could change the way[physicians] practice,” she says. She is focused on achieving ORWH’s six strategic goals by 2020. This year, she’ll concentrate on increasing the number of scientists who consider sex and gender differences when designing studies.