NIH Announces $10.1 Million Worth of Grants to Combat Gender Bias in the Lab
This week, the NIH announced grants worth around $10.1 million to combat gender bias in research. Traditionally medical research focused on male subjects. Even when working with animals such as mice and rats, researches still favored male specimens. When women make up more than half the population, why is Male still seen as the default? Scientists want the most clean-cut results possible. Women are frequently seen as variables to be controlled for. Not only were young, white male, undergraduates readily available, males don’t have the pesky hormonal fluctuations that women do. Yet the belief that the estrous cycle needs to be controlled for or monitored is false.
Dr. Janine Austin Clayton, associate director for women’s health research at N.I.H. called for this bias to be addressed early this year in a commentary in the journal Nature. She said this bias has caused a huge gap in scientific knowledge, “we literally know less about every aspect of female biology compared to male biology”. Unfortunately, this bias for male subjects has lead to damage outside of the lab.
Women reportedly suffer more severe side-effects of new drugs, the effects on women weren’t discovered until after the drug hit the market. Recent studies of the sleep aid Ambien showed that women metabolize the drug differently than men. The drug stayed in their bodies longer and had greater potential for next-day impairment. The drug had previously been tested mostly in males. After being on the market for a decade, the FDA finally recommended that women should reduce their dose by half.
Even the gender of researchers can have an unnoticed effect on studies. Rumors that the gender of researchers affects the lab animals existed for years. A study published early this year gave credence to such whispers. Researchers from the Mcgill University in Quebec found that mice and rats reacted differently to pain based on who was in the room with them. They showed elevated blood levels of the stress hormone corticosterone when men were in the room or even when the scent of a male was present in the room. The presence of women seemed to counteract this effect. It was suggest that in future studies the gender of the researchers should be published.
The bias affects the way we understand diseases too. Did you know that women experience heart attacks differently than men? Symptoms for women include, chest pain or discomfort, shortness of breath, nausea, and jaw pain. Tons of other diseases are more prevalent in women, depression, thyroid, migraines, etc. and lacked proper research for decades due to the ingrained gender bias.
Sex is a biological variable, but one that shouldn’t be ignored. With women making up more than half the population on this planet, its essential drugs get tested in everyone (and I mean everyone, not just those that fit into a binary of male/female). It’s essential that we know how diseases affect people differently depending on sex. These recent grants from the NIH are a huge step in the right direction. But it makes you wonder, how has this skewed results for decades of research?