DMU student explores gender’s role in chronic kidney disease

As an undergraduate at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Raina Gerritts combined majors in neurobiology and gender/women’s studies. That’s why research by Noah Marcus, Ph.D., associate professor of physiology and pharmacology at Des Moines University, piqued her interest: Now a second-year student in DMU’s osteopathic medicine program, she joined his investigations on the relationship between sleep apnea and chronic kidney disease among post-menopausal women.

It also caught her eye that Dr. Marcus is a fellow graduate of UW-Madison, where he earned his doctoral degree.

“It’s interesting to see how gender plays a role in health,” says Raina, president of DMU’s Women’s Medical Alliance. “To be part of this study with Dr. Marcus was really cool.”

The research she joined became a poster and abstract titled “Chronic intermittent hypoxia adversely affects renal microcirculatory regulation and tissue PO2 in ovariectomized female rats,” which was among four abstract awardees at the New Trends in Sex and Gender Medicine Conference in late October. Hosted by the American Physiological Society, the annual event, held virtually this year, is the premier forum for scientists who conduct research associated with sex and gender differences in diseases of the cardiovascular, renal, endocrine and immune systems. 

Raina Gerritts, D.O.’24

Raina was lead author on the poster and abstract, joined by DMU classmates Benjamin Madigan, Katherine “Katie” Harbeck and Abbie Voas along with Dr. Marcus and Sarah Clayton, Ph.D., associate professor of physiology and pharmacology at DMU. Kelsey Schwartz and James Lang from Iowa State University’s department of kinesiology also were authors.

“This was in all respects a team effort, and I want to express how grateful I am for everyone’s ability to cooperate and get this complicated project up and running,” Dr. Marcus says. “Raina came to me kind of late in the game with respect to summer research, but her research background at the University of Wisconsin with a colleague of mine helped get her foot in the door, so to speak. She along with the other students were a real pleasure to work with, and our team was really able to accomplish a lot in a relatively short period of time.

“I look forward to seeing these students succeed in their chosen fields and to further developing these projects going forward,” he adds.

According to the researchers on this project, “epidemiological evidence indicates that sleep apnea, which increases in prevalence in post-menopausal women, is a major risk factor for development of chronic kidney disease. The mechanisms underlying this association are poorly understood, but abnormal renal hemodynamics, neurohormonal activation, and hypoxemia” – a below-normal level of oxygen in the blood – “are hypothesized to play prominent roles in this process.”

Their conclusion: Exposure to chronic intermittent hypoxia – a model of sleep apnea – in female rats that had had ovariectomies alters renal hemodynamic regulation and tissue oxygenation in a manner that may contribute to tissue damage and development of chronic kidney disease.

In addition to the “surprising” honor of receiving an abstract award, Raina received a New Trends in Sex and Gender Medicine Diversity Conference Scholarship, which reimbursed her conference registration fee. Supported by the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, these scholarships are designed to allow scientists from under-represented backgrounds, including women, people with disabilities and people of color, to attend the conference and to promote the cultivation of a larger, more diverse audience. More important, Raina says the research let her collaborate with her co-authors, apply concepts of physiology she was learning in her classes, and experience a conference that exposed her to the many systems of the body and health that are affected by gender.

“My takeaway was the huge impact gender differences have on health and the lack of studies relating to those differences. This conference made me optimistic seeing how many people are dedicated to addressing this gap,” she says.

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