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UC scientist working to find a cure for endometriosis

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Posted at 8:11 AM, Nov 09, 2020
and last updated 2020-11-24 08:09:01-05

CINCINNATI — For Dr. Katie Burns, her life experiences transcend into her research.

Burns, an assistant professor at the University of Cincinnati’s College of Medicine, dedicates her research to finding treatment and, hopefully, a cure for endometriosis.

Endometriosis is a painful condition that affects a woman’s uterus; tissue that typically lines the uterus grows in other places, like on the ovaries, bowels or bladder.

Burns has suffered from the condition since she was 11 years old. Over the last 30 years, she’s had five surgeries and has tried chemical menopause, hypnosis and acupuncture in an effort to curb the symptoms.

Endometriosis is difficult to treat and even harder to diagnose. Burns said she was told by some doctors that she just has bad periods or that she was blowing things out of proportion.

“I was told that a number of times growing up … I was told that I needed to seek psychological help,” Burns said.

Right now, the only way to diagnose endometriosis is through surgery, but Burns hopes her research will change that.

Burns is working with EndoCyclic Therapeutics to develop a treatment that may permanently treat or even prevent endometriosis. Together, they secured a Small Business Initiated Research grant from the National Institutes of Health to study a non-hormonal therapeutic for the disorder.

“Everything for endometriosis right now is a Band-Aid. The statistic is it actually takes seven to 10 years to actually get a diagnosis for endometriosis,” Burns said.

Not only does the condition cause infertility, heavy bleeding and gastrointestinal issues, Burns said the pain alone is excruciating.

“If you take a washcloth, and you ring it out, and then pull it as hard as you can, that’s what it feels like on the inside … every time I moved I would feel pulling,” Burns said.

Physical therapist Rebekah Slafka also knows the pain of endometriosis; it runs in her family. Her mother and twin have it too.

Slafka specializes in pelvic floor therapy, which saved Burns from getting a hysterectomy.

“It really does affect every aspect of your life,” Slafka said. “The bad days seem to connect all together. You’re afraid to make plans with friends because you don't know how you're going to be feeling."

Despite high rates of infertility, Slafka recently gave birth to her first child, a baby girl.

Burns fears Slafka’s daughter will also inherit the debilitating disorder, but Slafka said new research gives her hope.

“I told her, ‘Katie, it’s because of people like you, I’m not scared to have a daughter. Because hopefully she doesn’t have to go through what we went through,’” Slafka said.

Burns said she plans to visit schools in the area once the pandemic clears so she can teach young girls about endometriosis, periods and the importance of talking to
doctors and advocating for yourself if you have symptoms.

“Our hope, really, at the end of the day, is to help young women become older women who don’t have to live their life in pain,” Burns said.

Anyone who may be interested in participating in Burns’ research can reach her at burns2ki@ucmail.uc.edu.