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Nelson Lauded for Listening to Patients

By Melissa Braddock and Robert Bock

Dr. Lawrence Nelson, a fertility researcher at the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, has received "The Art of Listening Award" from the Genetic Alliance for his ability to listen carefully to his patients when evaluating their conditions.

"Listening is a form of caring for others," Nelson said. "This award touches me deeply because it means our patients feel that our research team cares about them. But listening is not only the right thing to do to care for patients, it is also the right thing to do to advance research. As somebody once told me, you can learn a lot more by listening than you can by talking."

The Genetic Alliance, an international nonprofit coalition that works to help those affected by genetic disorders, created this award to increase awareness of listening. The alliance believes that listening is an invaluable tool that can increase medical understanding and help patients.

Dr. Lawrence Nelson

Nelson's principal research interest is in premature ovarian failure. This mysterious disorder affects young women, causing the ovaries to stop producing eggs and cutting off the hormones needed for bone strength and to ward off heart disease.

"Dr. Nelson deserves this honor," said Dr. Duane Alexander, NICHD director. "He has doggedly pursued the causes of this frustrating disorder while at the same time focusing intensely on the patients whose condition he is studying."

After working in private practice as a gynecologist, Nelson came to NICHD in 1988 to set up the institute's unit on gynecologic endocrinology. Since then, he and his coworkers have conducted research to understand why an otherwise healthy young woman's ovaries would stop functioning.

Nelson now suspects that such problems are the result of an immune system attack on these women's egg-producing machinery. Recently, in work published in the journal Nature Genetics, he and his colleagues have described the Mater gene in mice. The Mater gene produces a protein that is targeted by the immune system in certain strains of mice and is essential for a fertilized egg to develop.

Next, Nelson and his colleagues will search for the human version of the gene and protein, to learn if it, too, is the target of an immune attack. He also hopes to find out whether defective copies of the gene are responsible for unexplained cases of infertility.

Nelson added that while it's important to search for the cause of the condition, it's also important to find more effective treatments to help women whose ovaries have ceased functioning. In a new study, he and his coworkers are trying to find out if combining the female hormones estrogen and progestin with the male hormone testosterone will help to avert the bone loss, loss of sex drive and cardiovascular risks experienced by many ovarian failure patients.

Nelson would like patients and their health care providers to be more aware of possible ovarian problems. "We believe the menstrual cycle is a vital sign of a women's health," he said. "If it isn't functioning, we need to find out why."

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