Advancing women's health through scientific mobility
A Marie Skłodowska-Curie fellowship grant has enabled an ambitious young French researcher to make important advances in identifying a possible genetic association between endometriosis (when tissue that normally grows inside the uterus grows outside) and a higher risk of developing melanoma, a skin cancer.
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Endometriosis and melanoma are two major health burdens that affect millions of women in Europe.
After working with world-renowned experts at Harvard University during her fellowship, Marina Kvaskoff has gone on to work for the prestigious French National Institute of Health and Medical Research (Inserm), and is busy applying her experiences and skills to build up European expertise in this vitally important field.
“My research has confirmed a link between certain phenotypic traits related to melanoma gene expressions like the tanning ability of skin, freckling, or number of moles that we can observe and endometriosis risk,” explains Kvaskoff, who coordinated the MELENDO2 project. “This has helped us to identify a new risk profile for endometriosis in Caucasian women.”
Pigmentary traits consistently associated with melanoma have been linked to a higher endometriosis risk suggesting a potential genetic link between the two diseases but no previous research has yet investigated this aspect.
Kvaskoff wanted to fill in this gap by combining cutting-edge techniques to investigate the genetic overlap between endometriosis and melanoma.
The data generated by this project will strengthen knowledge of the genetic background of both conditions, and the factors associated with their development. This information could contribute towards the design of personalised medical treatments in the future.
Building European expertise
Just as important for the future of European research has been the impact of the fellowship on Kvaskoff’s career. Kvaskoff has gone on to publish a comprehensive review of the links between endometriosis and melanoma as well as to other cancers, autoimmune diseases, asthma and cardiovascular diseases in the top peer-reviewed obstetrics and gynaecology journals.
She has also been invited to talk about the current research in this field at the next World Congress on Endometriosis, which is held every four years and will take place in Vancouver, Canada, in May 2017.
“The training I received at Harvard was of excellent quality in terms of statistical programming, genetic epidemiology and transferrable skills, and it has shaped the scientist that I am today,” says Kvaskoff, who also acknowledged the guidance she received from Stacey Missmer, co-founder of the Boston Center for Endometriosis. “Being exposed to the American research culture in a world-recognised institution and the outstanding mentoring that I received continues to inspire my research today.”
Although the fellowship ended in 2015, Kvaskoff is still in touch with Missmer and her colleagues, and recently hosted a postdoctoral fellow from her group.
“We have several ongoing projects and ideas for the future,” she adds. “This expanded scientific network would not have been possible if I had not had this mobility experience.”
The fellowship has also been instrumental in helping Kvaskoff to move on from being a post-doc to becoming an independent researcher.
“I attained a permanent position at Inserm last year, and I am sure that the fellowship had a major impact on this success,” she says. Competition to work at Inserm is immense; only four positions were open last year, and Kvaskoff got in on her first attempt. She is currently working with three doctoral students and one biostatistician at Inserm, and busy developing an ambitious research programme to tackle endometriosis and skin cancer.
“The advances that were made in the MELENDO2 project remain preliminary, and further research is required to really understand the genetic link between endometriosis and melanoma,” she stresses. “Today, a major goal of my research is to raise awareness of endometriosis in Europe and to advance our knowledge on its causes, as it remains a much-misunderstood condition.”