For four years, MIT bioengineer Linda Griffith has been slowly unraveling the biology of endometriosis, a complicated and poorly understood disease that she has silently struggled with her entire life. The condition — in which tissue normally found in the uterus grows elsewhere in the body — is remarkably common, yet relatively little is known about what causes it or how to treat or prevent it.
In a study published Wednesday, Griffith and colleagues present new work that is a first step toward providing a more informed way of classifying endometriosis based on the underlying biological cause.
The study, published in the journal Science Translational Medicine, is influenced by Griffith’s experience as a breast cancer survivor. When she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2010, doctors quickly did molecular tests to discern the underlying molecular drivers of her cancer and help select the treatment most likely to work. She sought a way to bring that personalized medicine approach to endometriosis.
In the study, Griffith and colleagues studied samples from 77 women, which were analyzed for immune system molecules involved in inflammation. Instead of looking for just one immune system protein that was elevated, they looked for networks of molecules that seemed to be elevated in concert; that approach is key because the disease is complex and probably not due to a single errant protein.
In about a third of the women with confirmed endometriosis, they found a network of 13 immune system proteins that were elevated.
“We’re not claiming we found a mechanism — the mechanism for endometriosis,” Griffith said. “We have found a very convincing approach to understand an immune network.”