Medical research is great. It truly is. It allows us to grasp a greater understanding of the signs, symptoms and who is most at-risk for specific diseases so we can create effective treatment options and medications. However, there is one fundamental flaw. You guessed it – the gender bias. We’re talking about the standardised reporting of research based on studies of men that is then generalised and applied to both genders. And sadly, this practice is unintentionally putting lives of women at risk.
It’s no secret that men and women are different. Mentally, physically and biologically, men and women are not created equally. It sounds obvious, yet historically, gender differences have not been reflected accurately in the field of medicine. Women are still excluded as subjects of medical research on diseases prevalent among both men and women. As a result, women are at a greater risk for adverse drug reactions (ADRs), side effects, and chronic illness.
An analysis of 10 prescription drugs that were withdrawn in the market from 1997-2001 found that eight posed a greater health risks for women, mainly because of adverse drug events due to known pharmacodynamic (molecular, biochemical and physiologic) differences or because of greater exposure of women to these drugs.
We’re not making this stuff up. Did you know:
- Autoimmune disease affects approximately 8% of the population, 78% of whom are women
- Women are three times more likely than men to develop Rheumatoid Arthritis
- Women are four times more likely to be diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis, an autoimmune disease that attacks the central nervous system
- Women make up two-thirds of people with Alzheimer’s disease
- Women are three times more likely to have a heart attack than men
- Women are at least twice as likely to suffer chronic pain conditions such as fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue syndrome and chronic Lyme disease
The number of men and women in the world is fairly equal, with men taking a slight lead of 102 men (50.4%) for every 100 women (49.6%). So, surely an effort to mix gender within study groups is considered an effective approach to maintaining equality while minimising the risk for the female population.
So, why are women under-represented in clinical trials?
You’ve probably heard a thing or two about the Thalidomide Tragedy. Back in the late 1950s and early 1960s Thalidomide was a drug widely prescribed for the treatment of nausea in pregnant women. In the 1960s it became apparent that Thalidomide caused severe birth defects in thousands of babies, known as Thalidomide babies. As a result, pregnant women were considered a “vulnerable population” and in 1977 the FDA essentially banned women of childbearing age from participating in early phase clinical research as a form of protection.
Another reason for the lack of female representation in clinical trials stems from genetic and hormonal factors. More specifically, the stage in which a woman is in her cycle can ultimately complicate research methods and results. On top of that, women were viewed to be more expensive test subjects due to their unpredictable and fluctuating hormone levels.
Why is it important to represent women in medical research?
In short, male and female bodies respond differently to medications and how diseases manifest and affect the body. If research is studied solely on male bodies, you may find that female bodies will show a different set of symptoms and may require different forms of medication or treatment. The results will be skewed, and treatment will be flawed. When it comes to health, we think more work needs to be done to address the gender gap in clinical trials. Female lives are too important!