Burns has received grants from the Endometriosis Foundation of America, a pharmaceutical company and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to further her work. The NIH most recently awarded a five-year $2.1 million grant to look more closely at how the immune system may play a role in the development of endometriosis. As part of that work she is collecting menstrual fluid from women with and without endometriosis and to study what is in it and the differences between the two groups.
The process of finding a better treatment and ultimately a cure is a slow one. This is often frustrating for a scientist and especially for someone who knows the firsthand effects of a debilitating medical condition.
“I study this because I have endometriosis, and I have been through a heck of a journey,” says Burns. “It takes seven to nine years to get a diagnosis, and the journey is quite complicated by symptoms overlapping with other conditions, seeing a number of specialists and the psychological depression and stress that affects your overall well-being.”
Glenn Talaska, PhD, interim chair of the UC Department of Environmental and Public Health Sciences, says that Burns’ dogged determination to make an impact on endometriosis is bound to bear fruit. “Katie is devoting her total energy to understanding the mechanisms of endometriosis so that she can see if and how environmental factors may be making a difference in its incidence and severity.”
Burns first felt the pain of endometriosis when she was 10 years old and it was mistaken for appendicitis.
“I had my first surgery to explore what was happening at 19, and then every two years afterward,” says Burns. “I would have another type of surgery to remove lesions for many years. I was prescribed drugs to simulate menopause, different types of oral contraceptives, multiple cocktails of medicines from pain clinics and various diet changes. I tried acupuncture and hypnosis to control the symptoms.”
Endometriosis causes scarring, and organs in the pelvic region become frozen or stuck together. “For me, I’ve done pelvic physical therapy once a week for eight years and that has really helped suppress the pain,” says Burns.
The disease is not life-threatening but it is certainly life-altering, says Burns.