When the University of Missouri NextGen Precision Health initiative was first dreamed up, stakeholders envisioned a hub of innovation — both a physical building and network of researchers who would help solve critical health challenges through interdisciplinary collaboration using state-of-the-art equipment and facilities.
The concept of NextGen is now a reality, and several of the scientists who have lab space in the Roy Blunt NextGen Precision Health building have been in their posts long enough to see the initiative working.
Wipawee Winuthayanon, associate professor in the Department of Obstetrics, Gynecology and Women’s Health, is a NextGen researcher interested in how estrogen and progesterone affect fertility in early pregnancy, as well as innovative nonhormonal contraceptive solutions.
Winuthayanon joined the NextGen initiative and came to MU in August 2022. Since then, she has set up her lab and is already collaborating with other scientists in the building.
We asked more about her research, her experience at NextGen and why she chose the University of Missouri as the place to continue her work.
Tell us a little bit more about your research.
Our lab has two main research projects. We are evaluating the action of female steroid hormones (estrogen and progesterone) in the fallopian tubes during sperm migration, fertilization and early embryo development before they reach the uterus. The goal is to identify potential factors, resulting from hormonal imbalance in the fallopian tubes, that lead to infertility. As such, we could use those factors as diagnostic markers or targets to improve success rates for assisted reproductive technologies, such as in vitro fertilization.
Another project involves the development of a novel nonhormonal contraceptive method by blocking semen liquefaction. The ejaculated semen is gel-like and requires an enzyme, called prostate-specific antigen (PSA), to digest the semen gel, making it watery for the sperm to gain motility. Blocking the action of PSA would cause the semen to stay in a gel-like state, therefore, the sperm are trapped in the semen and immotile. The intended application for this contraceptive target would be for both men and women. For men, the drug would be delivered systemically. In women, the drug would be delivered to the vagina immediately before intercourse. However, we are still at an early stage of performing a proof-of-concept study for this contraceptive development.
What drew you to studying reproductive issues?
I was trained as a nurse and a midwife. So, I have always been interested in reproductive processes in humans. During my graduate training, our lab found that compounds extracted from an indigenous plant called Curcuma comosa in Southeast Asia had an estrogen-like effect. For centuries, women in those countries consume the rhizome (similar to ginger roots) to stop the bleeding after giving birth or as an alternative hormonal supplement during menopause. We have found scientific support for its use; certain compounds derived from the rhizome at very high concentrations can have similar effects to that of estrogen in the uteruses of mice. This discovery was when I realized that studying reproduction could have a direct impact on people’s health. Since then, I have continued my research in reproductive biology.
What made you choose Mizzou for this next stage of your career?
I have been impressed with the research infrastructure at Mizzou. The investment in research from President Choi and Provost Ramchand has been outstanding. In addition, the chair and physicians in my department have been supportive and collaborative in basic and translational research. The NextGen initiative also has a large group of reproductive biologists for my lab to interact with and bounce ideas off. So, I am very happy and grateful for the research support that Mizzou has at every level.
Now that you’ve been here for about a year, can you talk about your experience at Mizzou as a NextGen researcher? The opportunity for collaboration with other investigators is outstanding. Our group has reached out and collaborated on research projects with Dr. Jianlin Cheng’s lab to use machine learning to predict our drug molecules with the protein of interest. In addition, we are developing an NIH grant proposal with Drs. Haval Shirwan and Esma Yolcu and their laboratories to investigate the impact of the immune environment in the fallopian tube during pregnancy establishment.
Which Division of Research resources have been helpful to your work?
The Animal Research staff has been very flexible and is always willing to help – we appreciate that so much. We also have had fantastic experiences with the Electron Microscopy core facility; the director and staff have been invaluable to our research, educating us on transmission electron microscope images as well as troubleshooting and optimizing our samples for cryo-electron microscopy. Dr. Charlene Emerson, NextGen scientific editor and writing consultant, also has helped edit our NIH grant to make it more precise and concise.
What do you enjoy about running a lab and working with students?
I enjoy seeing students grow personally and professionally. I hope that the process of being students in my lab will help them figure out what they want to do in the future. Identifying aspects of a job you don’t like is equally important as knowing what you want to do for your career.
What do you love most about your work?
People say I am easily excited. That’s because I truly am excited about what we do in our lab. I hope that our research will make a translational impact on people's reproductive health in the near future.