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UCSD bioengineering student researches female pelvic floor disorders after childbirth

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Posted at 5:12 PM, Feb 16, 2022
and last updated 2022-02-16 20:52:04-05

SAN DIEGO (KGTV) — Nearly one in every four women suffers from a pelvic floor disorder after childbirth. A University of California San Diego bioengineering student is working to understand how this happens and prevent it.

Dr. Pamela Duran, a bioengineering student at UCSD and Siebel Scholar, has focused her research on understanding pelvic floor muscle dysfunctions in women after vaginal childbirth.

"Just seeing how women experience these conditions is really impactful for me," explains Dr. Duran. "It really impacts their quality of life."

She sought the guidance of Dr. Marianna Alperin who has dedicated her life's work to the subject.

"They [pelvic floor disorders] affect roughly 25% of women in the United States," Dr. Alperin, an Associate Professor of Obstetrics, Gynecology, and Reproductive Sciences said. "Unfortunately, they continue to be stigmatized and often women don't volunteer that information they don't think there is any help, and that they will have to live with that for the rest of their lives."

It is that mentality that has pushed this duo to find answers. Dr. Duran first needed to understand how damage occurs in the first place.

"What I found so far is that these muscles have sustained inflammation after birth-related injuries, and this can lead to some negative or pathological alterations," she said.

Dr. Duran noted that some of the consequences range from fibrosis to atrophy. She said that her studies found those consequences were more prevalent in women who have had multiple vaginal births.

The Ph.D. student then turned her focus to prevention. That is when she got connected to Dr. Karen Christman.

"We use our bio-materials where you can deliver directly into the muscle, inject it in, and stimulate a tissue healing response," explains Dr. Christman.

She developed a hydro-gel made from pig skeletal muscle roughly 5 years ago. The source material was created by removing the cells, which left behind the scaffolding of the skeletal muscle.

"They help tell the immune cells that come in when we inject, instead of doing damage and cause inflammation. Basically, create a healing program to stimulate the muscle stem cells and regenerate the tissue," Dr. Christman emphasizes.

The hydro-gel has previously been applied to other health arenas, specifically cardiovascular functions. This trio is attempting to see if this skeletal muscle extracellular matrix hydrogel could also be the solution to bettering women's health when it comes to pelvic floor muscle dysfunctions.

In order to find this out, Dr. Duran under the guidance of both Dr. Christman and Dr. Alperin applied the hydrogel to over one hundred small animal models and studied the response to the muscle's tissue when used before delivery, and after delivery.

"I found that in both operating windows the bio-materials show efficacy," states Dr. Duran.

The next steps, Dr. Duran shares will be progressing observations to large animal models and then clinical trials. Ultimately, her goal is to put these findings into real-world practice.

"For us, it's really important to test it first," Dr. Christman said. "And then our goal for my lab is to develop materials that can translate into patients...That's I think something that is important to all of us."

Dr. Duran hopes that her research could be published within the next year, as well as get FDA approval to potentially begin clinical trials.

Until then, Dr. Duran says she will keep studying, observing, and working to find the perfect treatment. Dr. Duran said future research she hopes to pursue is how age might also play a factor.

This team of researchers says that funding in this arena is disproportionate to other fields of study, yet this is one of the most significant health issues found in women.