We’ve made a lot of advances in medical science in the past several decades. Animal research has, for better or worse, been a part of many of these advances. Because doctors tend to treat both men and women, it stands to reason that medical experiments would include both male and female subjects. Right?
It turns out that, for decades, researchers have favored experimenting on male animals and cells. It’s not only hurting scientific research; it has been to the detriment of actual human women, as well.
By the way, Care2 does not condone animal testing and believes that there are viable alternatives for animal research. However, as long as animal testing is being done, it’s important to note and eliminate this disparity.
The omission of female subjects is easy for a lay person to overlook. I mean, how different could the male and female of a species possibly be? It turns out, different enough to warrant scientific investigation. According to the journal Nature:
The 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. Furthermore, inadequate inclusion of female cells and animals in experiments and inadequate analysis of data by sex may well contribute to the troubling rise of irreproducibility in preclinical biomedical research, which the NIH [National Institutes of Health] is now actively working to address.
Translation: When scientists don’t take biological sex into account, we don’t really know how a medication is going to affect half the population. Not only that, it’s also just shoddy science. Appallingly shoddy.
This sex disparity has been going on for decades, but it’s gotten so bad that NIH has stepped in to try to correct it. The NIH now requires all researchers who receive grants to balance male and female animals and cells.
This is important because we’ll finally get some systematic insight into how gender differences affect disease and medication, which is something that we know happens. Women have different symptoms for heart attacks, and female bodies react differently to aspirin, Ambien, nicotine patches and other drugs. In addition, diseases such as multiple sclerosis and Parkinson’s disease tend to hit one sex more often than the other. Heart disease and lung cancer also manifest in different ways in men and women. This is important information.
You might be wondering why researchers could get away with ignoring half of the population for so long. Part of it is that researchers didn’t want to have to deal with hormone cycles female animals go through (although, this has been shown to not be as big a deal as researchers believe). Another cause is just inertia. It’s always been done this way, so it must be OK.
Unfortunately, gender disparity isn’t relegated to animal and cell subjects. Women have historically been excluded from clinical trials. (You know, because men are the default human.) But since 1993 it’s been the law that women must be included in NIH funded research. Just over half of the subjects in this research are women, but that doesn’t mean that the problem is solved everywhere. There are still gaps to be filled. For example, while heart disease is number one cause of death of women in the United States, only a third of cardiovascular clinical trial participants are women, according to a new report. The gender difference goes beyond medicine. Even things like car safety have been designed with men in mind, not women.
It’s the 21st century. You wouldn’t think that women would have to fight to be recognized as not just variants on a theme. We know that there are biological differences and it is incumbent on scientists and researchers to delve into those differences to find out when they might be relevant and when they might not be. It’s good to see the NIH doing what it can to make sure this happens.
Photo Credit: JD Hancock via Flickr