It’s no secret that women have struggled to be represented in positions of power in management, in graduate school and in government. But it may surprise you to learn that no matter who is conducting the research, females have been underrepresented in studies themselves, under the microscope, and even at the cellular level.
Current laboratory research is mostly conducted on male cells and male laboratory animals (scientists even use more male mice than female mice!), but that’s all about to end. Last week, in the midst of National Women’s Health Week (May 11-17), the National Institutes of Health (NIH) announced that beginning in October 2014, it will roll out new policies that take aim at the sex discrepancy in research.
Why does this matter, when these studies are often on animals, not humans?
According to a statement from NIH Director Dr. Francis Collins and Director of the Office of Research on Women's Health at NIH Dr. Janine Austin Clayton, “Over-reliance on male animals and cells in preclinical research obscures key sex differences that could guide clinical studies. And it might be harmful: women experience higher rates of adverse drug reactions than men do.”
Women may be suffering adverse reactions to drugs because everything from dosing to side effects has only been studied on male cells.
In an email to MindBodyGreen, Dr. Clayton said, "Using male animals and cells is by and large the status quo right now. That’s because scientists may not realize that sex is a fundamental variable in biomedical research that really must be considered from the very start."
This isn't the first time the NIH, which is the largest medical research funder in the world, has pushed for gender equality in research. In 1993, the NIH made a similar change, with the NIH Revitalization Act requiring the inclusion of women in NIH-funded clinical research (i.e. studies done on people). Thanks to the NIH Revitalization Act, now over half of NIH-funded clinical-research participants are women.
The inclusion of women has allowed researchers to explore how drugs work differently on men and women and account for these differences in treatment. For example, say Collins and Clayton, “low-dose aspirin has different preventive effects in women and men, and ... drugs such as zolpidem, used to treat insomnia, require different dosing in women and men.”
And, as Dr. Clayton told MindBodyGreen via email, sex-equality in research can help create more successful approaches to a wide-range of health problems, including heart attack prevention and substance abuse. One example: women don't respond nearly as well as men to nicotine patches, she explained.
So, women everywhere can look forward to preclinical research cell-sex equality, which hopefully will help researchers understand potentially significant differences in how men and women react under research conditions!
And while we wait? As Dr. Clayton said to MindBodyGreen, "It’s important for women to continue to talk with their health care providers about any health concerns."
While there is still progress to be made, we can take solace in the fact that we're moving toward true gender equality in research. Thanks, NIH!