With a father who instilled a passion for knowledge and a mother who inspired curiosity, it’s no great surprise that Bulun became fascinated by science. While studying medicine at Istanbul University in the early ’80s, he became transfixed.
“I found myself intrigued by the hormone estrogen,” said Bulun, John J. Sciarra Professor in Obstetrics and Gynecology. “I was captivated by how it acts as a master regulator, with its partner hormone progesterone, to prepare the entire endometrium for implantation. On the other hand, too much estrogen causes endometrial cancer. As a third year medical student, I made a note to myself that one day I would like to uncover how estrogen is capable of causing all of these complex actions in health and disease.”
Bulun’s contributions to the understanding of endometriosis, a disorder of the uterus, and his novel use of aromatase inhibitors to treat it, earned him a National Institutes of Health MERIT Award in 2010. During his career, Bulun’s research team has been awarded more than $40 million in funding in the areas of uterine, breast, and placental disorders, and in 2015 he will serve as president of the Society of Gynecologic Investigation.
Can you describe your research interests?
I have broad interests in all aspects of reproductive biology including human development, functioning of specific tissues of women such as the breast, uterus, and ovary, and the effects of steroid hormones on some of these tissues.
Our recent research findings have taken us to a new area of brain research including the molecular determinants of sexual behavior.
What is the ultimate goal of your work?
Estrogen and progesterone are broad master-regulators of tissues such as breast, uterus, adipose tissue, brain, and any other human tissues that one can think of. They have diverse effects on healthy and diseased tissues. For example, progesterone causes breast cancer and growth of uterine fibroids, whereas it protects against endometrial cancer. One ultimate goal in my laboratory is to understand the mechanisms that underlie such opposite actions of estrogen and progesterone on various tissues.
How does your research advance medical science and knowledge?
Some of the diseases that we study such as uterine fibroids and endometriosis affect tens of millions of U.S. women. These are considered benign diseases but they have devastating symptoms such as chronic pelvic pain, excessive and irregular uterine bleeding, anemia, and recurrent pregnancy loss. They are severely understudied.
The research findings of our team solved some of the molecular puzzles in endometriosis and determined new targets for treatment, which led to the introduction of aromatase inhibitors to manage endometriosis and pelvic pain during the past decade. If one considers that the last broad class of drugs for both endometriosis and fibroids were developed in the early ’80s, one can appreciate our contributions, at least to these two extremely common and frequently devastating diseases.
What types of collaborations are you engaged in across campus?
We are a highly collaborative group within the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology. Several large National Institutes of Health (NIH) program projects awarded within the department underscore that very nature.
Outside of the department, we collaborate with many Northwestern investigators. We worked closely with Seema Khan, MD, Chuck Clevenger, MD, PhD, Kathy Green, PhD, JianJun Wei, MD, and Kara Gottardi, PhD, from the departments of surgery, pathology, and medicine to advance our programs in breast cancer and uterine fibroids.
We also collaborated successfully with investigators from the Evanston Campus. For example, several years ago we received significant help and support from Erik Sontheimer, PhD, to develop a project regarding micro-RNAs in uterine fibroids. We have also collaborated with the investigators in the Chemistry of Life Processes Institute in Evanston for protein biochemistry and drug discovery.
How is your research funded?
I can say that at some level I have built my career around NIH funding since the early 1990s. The bulk of the money that supported groundbreaking projects came from the NIH. However, I should acknowledge that seed grants provided by research societies and most importantly philanthropic organizations such as Friends of Prentice, the Lynn Sage Breast Cancer Foundation, and the AVON Foundation provided us tremendous opportunities to generate preliminary data for putting together blockbuster NIH grants.
Who makes up your research team and what role does each individual play in your research?
My laboratory is like my extended family. Every scientist in the lab plays an extraordinarily important role in advancing our research mission. The key attribute to our lab is our innovative nature, our willingness to apply cutting edge technologies to primary human cells and tissues, and our highly collaborative and collegial environment.
My lab consists of junior faculty, PhD or MD post-doctoral fellows, graduate students, technicians, undergraduate, and high school students. I should say, we all have fun as we work on our projects and come up with scientific discoveries. Making scientific discovery a pleasurable experience for young scientists continues to be a major goal.