Dr. Jennifer Phy's hustle to help solve infertility problems leverages new research findings
The Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center is the birthplace of a dietary innovation for treating a common disorder linked to infertility in women. A startup headed by Dr. Jennifer Phy, D.O., a physician at the Center for Fertility and Reproductive Surgery and associate professor, is a recent recipient of a Presidents' Innovation Award. Her company, PCOS Diet, is based on an endocrinology-based research breakthrough to help restore and maintain the patients' hormonal and metabolic balance.
Hope and change through innovation
Dr. Phy says one out of ten women has polycystic ovary syndrome, commonly called PCOS. She describes it as causing some telltale symptoms that vary in severity among patients. They include irregular or prolonged menstrual periods, acne, and excess male hormone levels. She says ultrasounds provide images of another key factor for diagnosing the syndrome: follicles that look like a string of pearls within fertile ovaries that fail to regularly release eggs. In addition to often preventing women from becoming pregnant, PCOS can also keep them from being able to lose weight. Dr. Phy says, "Many patients I've seen who have this syndrome tell me they feel it's controlled their life and stolen their womanhood. After a few months of just making simple changes to what these women eat, they say they feel they have all that back."
Impact in the making
Dr. Phy says the PCOS Diet startup has been about a decade in the making. She was contacted in 2011 by registered dietitian and Texas Tech doctoral student Ali Pohlmeier Chappell, who was studying nutritional sciences with a focus on reproductive endocrinology. Chappell says she had struggled with infrequent periods and acne as a teenager until a doctor recommended she stop drinking milk to help clear her skin. She was surprised by how quickly that was effective. Later, she was diagnosed with PCOS by another doctor, who advised she would need to watch her weight but gave her no other information on the syndrome or how to manage it. Her goal in grad school was to understand more about PCOS and how certain foods, such as dairy and starch-based foods, might exacerbate the syndrome. After hearing about Dr. Phy's specialized PCOS training at the Mayo Clinic and TTUHSC, Chappell asked her if she was interested in doing further research into a possible dietary link.
Days after her initial meeting with Chappell, Dr. Phy saw a patient with PCOS who'd been through seven months of unsuccessful surgical and medication treatments for infertility. "Nothing else had worked," Dr. Phy says. "So I told her, 'I just spoke to a dietitian researching how certain foods like dairy and grains might not be so good for women with PCOS. Would you be willing to change your diet and see what happens?' She agreed, and I also gave her the same fertility pills that had done nothing for her for so long. The woman called back a month later and said she was pregnant with twins. I thought maybe that had been just a coincidence. But then I tried the diet for another patient who also got pregnant soon afterward, and then with three more patients- all successfully. And so I thought, 'Wow! I need to call Ali.'"
The pair received their first research grant in 2015 from the Laura W. Bush Institute for Women's Health within the Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center. Funding for further studies followed in 2017 with continued successful results for increasing both fertility and weight loss for most patients in the trials.
Hustle to help
Dr. Phy and her team have been working with the Texas Tech Office of Research and Commercialization since September on a licensing agreement and a website featuring the startup's PCOS nutrition guide and video. The website, pcos-diet.com, is expected to go live in January. The PCOS Diet received a $5,000 Presidents' Innovation Award, along with another $5,000 for the development of an app. Dr. Phy says, "This funding will be a great help to us in moving forward. Making this information easily available and accessible to doctors and to patients with PCOS is a big part of my hustle, which is all about helping women that want to be a mom. My two children are the greatest joys in my life. I want others to have that kind of happiness in their lives, too."