Great strides have been made in the treatment of breast cancer since the discovery of a specific molecular profile in cancerous tumors that has allowed medical specialists to tailor treatment plans that target this profile when present or to use other treatments when the profile is not present. A similar signature cellular profile has recently been discovered in the peritoneal fluid of women with endometriosis. Its discovery could signal the beginning of speedier diagnosis and improved treatment for this disease that is painful and often misdiagnosed.

Endometriosis, which affects more than 10% of all women, occurs when uterine tissue implants outside the uterus on other organs of the abdomen and pelvic cavity, including the colon, diaphragm, and ovaries. This tissue responds to the menstrual cycle just as the uterine tissue in the womb does. Pain can be extreme and infertility is often a result of the disease.

The severity and location of distress comes and goes over time, making it especially difficult to identify. The disease can go undiagnosed or misdiagnosed for many of a woman’s most favorable reproductive years.

Hormone therapy is often used to treat endometriosis but it creates a state that resembles menopause. This treatment is not always effective and cannot be used in women who want to have children. Surgical removal of the wayward tissue can help but it often grows back, resulting in the need for additional surgeries over time.

Biological engineer Linda Griffith has made it her mission to get to the bottom of the endometriosis dilemma by targeting its cellular and molecular basis. She’s a driving force behind the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Center for Gynepathology Research and her work seems to be paying off.

Griffith and her research team measured 50 proteins in the peritoneal fluid of 77 women suffering from a wide range of endometriosis symptoms. The peritoneum is the membrane that lines the abdominal cavity and covers abdominal organs.

One group of compounds in question is cytokines. Cytokines regulate the immune system’s response to infectious pathogens but, when no pathogens are present, as is the case with endometriosis, cytokine activity results in inflammation.

The MIT study revealed a distinct profile, or signature, of cytokine activity associated with specific symptoms when endometrial tissue was growing on the ovaries, rectum, and vagina. The women from whom these tissue samples were taken are infertile, a finding that links the cytokine signature to the specific endometrial condition to infertility.

Further findings include discovery of a cellular regulator for cytokine activity. Research is currently underway to develop a drug that will inhibit the production of c-Jun, the cytokine regulator molecule, which has been linked to endometriosis in previous studies.

Source: Griffith, Linda, et al. “Molecular Network Analysis of Endometriosis Reveals a Role for c-Jun-Regulated Macrophage Activation.” Science Translational Medicine. American Association for the Advancement of Science. Feb 5, 2014. Web. Feb 14, 2014.