Biomedical Research's Uncomfortable Secret

    By Paige Higbie, UN Youth Rep Coordinator 

    The United Nations has gotten much savvier about bringing private science and technology partners into the conversation about the Sustainable Development Goals. One of the major venues for this conversation is the Science Technology and Innovation Forum held at UNHQ every year.

    An issue people may not be aware of, which I was introduced to at a side event on women and girls in science, is the gender gap in biomedical research. Which is dangerous, because this is not some remote issue. This impacts my life every single day, and probably yours too. The chromosomes responsible for sex are built into the DNA strand. Therefore, every cell in our body contains gender markers; every cell is, in a sense, gendered. At a biological level, sex informs everything. I am hammering on this point so that the implication is clear when I tell you that, in particular prior to 1994 (NIH Policy and Guidelines on The Inclusion of Women and Minorities as Subjects in Clinical Research[3]), females were substantially underrepresented in medical trial populations for many treatments and pharmaceutical drugs.  According to Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston; 'The science that informs medicine – including the prevention, diagnosis, and treatment of disease – routinely fails to consider the crucial impact of sex and gender. This happens in the earliest stages of research, when females are excluded from animal and human studies or the sex of the animals isn’t stated in the published results. Once clinical trials begin, researchers frequently do not enroll adequate numbers of women or, when they do, fail to analyse or report data separately by sex. This hampers our ability to identify important differences that could benefit the health of all. The issue is not actually sexist per se, but arose from the practicalities of research. Particularly during pre-trials, female test subjects are 'virtually non-existent' because testing for fertility and embryo-fetal effects slows the process of drug development at a critical early stage.

    A parting example to illustrate the case: Only 1/3 of cardiovascular clinical trial subjects are female, and of that only 31% of the resulting reports actually publish their results by sex. This is pertinent because the number one killer of US women is poor heart health; 22.3% of us will die of cardiovascular disease.

    Put simply, the optimum patient for modern prescription medications and treatments is male. Our benefit is not incidental but it is, in fact, secondary. So, as you see, the frontiers of the women's movement in science isn't just about jobs, it's also about our health.


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