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Magee-Womens Research Institute Announces Finalists for $1 Million Prize

October 8, 2021

Magee-Womens Research Institute (MWRI) will award the $1 million Magee Prize to an international team of scientists during the Magee-Womens Summit Nov. 16 to 18. The prize will help fund new research initiatives and transdisciplinary collaborations to promote knowledge and enhance the health and wellness of women and infants worldwide.  

“By stimulating novel, bold, imaginative, and cutting-edge research as represented by these proposals, the Magee Prize can play an important role in encouraging impactful international collaborations, with the goal of prioritizing women’s health — a goal that is long overdue,” said Yoel Sadovsky, MD, executive director of MWRI. 

Three Magee Prize finalist teams were selected:

Using Interspecies Chimeras to Understand Female Reproductive Lifespan

Diana J. Laird, PhD (University of California San Francisco); Miguel Brieno-Enriquez, MD, PhD (MWRI/University of Pittsburgh); Melissa Holmes, PhD (University of Toronto, Canada)

Ovarian aging influences not only reproduction, but also overall health and risk for different diseases. This project aims to better understand factors that influence reproductive longevity in the ovaries. Taking advantage of differences between species with highly divergent reproductive lifespans, the researchers propose to elucidate the role of the hypothalamus, pituitary gland, eggs or ovarian support cells in determining the chronology of the ovary.

“It’s fun and interdisciplinary science that couldn’t be accomplished by one lab alone. We’re using cutting-edge techniques,” said Laird. “We’re hoping we can identify some of the pathways that are deeply conserved in evolution that are the underpinnings of reproductive longevity, with the goal of laying the groundwork for future drug targets in humans.”

Vaginal Stem Cells: The Missing Link in Vaginal Reconstruction

Pamela Moalli, MD, PhD (MWRI/University of Pittsburgh); Kyle Orwig, PhD (MWRI/University of Pittsburgh), Caroline Gargett, PhD (Monash University, Australia)

An increasing number of women are seeking vaginal reconstruction surgery to repair tissue loss after surgery for pelvic cancers or following ovariectomy, chemotherapy, and radiation, which can result in the vagina becoming contracted, thinned and painful. After noticing the limited range of biomaterials for these procedures, Moalli was inspired to develop better solutions. This project seeks to identify stem cell populations that restore vaginal structure and function and isolate the cellular ecosystems needed for stem cell survival, proliferation, and engraftment. The researchers will use a novel bioassay to develop vaginal organoids from vaginal stem cells.

“I am beyond excited about this study because it provides a viable solution to young girls and women in whom vaginal structure and function has been compromised. Stem cell technologies for use in tissue biofabrication is where the future of reconstructive surgery lies,” Moalli said.

Epigenetic Regulation of Trophoblast Function, Infertility and Early Pregnancy Loss

Soumen Paul, PhD (University of Kansas Medical Center); Mellissa Mann, PhD (MWRI/University of Pittsburgh); William Pastor, PhD (McGill University, Canada) 

Between 10 and 15% of all pregnancies end in miscarriage; in one-third of those cases, pregnancy loss recurs, creating a devastating cycle for the parents. According to Paul, half of recurrent losses have unknown causes. The goal of this research is to understand epigenetic factors — marks that influence gene expression without changing the DNA sequence — that lead to recurrent loss. The team will establish stem cell lines from placentas involved in these lost pregnancies to see if epigenetic regulators are associated with unexplained recurrent pregnancy losses.

“We hope that eventually this will lead to novel therapeutics, or at least new types of preventive care,” Paul said. 
The Magee Summit is sponsored by UPMC and UPMC Health Plan, and the Magee Prize is sponsored by the Richard King Mellon Foundation. For additional information about the Magee Summit, the Magee Prize criteria, and to register, please visit