Coming Soon: Cash for Scientific Research Involving Female Subjects

Illustration for article titled Coming Soon: Cash for Scientific Research Involving Female Subjects

For many reasons, plenty of which will make your blood pressure escalate to dangerous rage-stroke-zone levels, scientific researchers often default to male subjects for their studies. Hopefully some cold, hard cash can help change that.


The Verge reports that the National Institutes of Health just announced it would be doling out $10 million to 82 different researchers, all of whom agreed to keep an eye on the impact of gender in the results of their preclinical studies. It does take dollar dollar bills to do that kind of work—you need a bigger pool of subjects, which requires bigger budgets.

It's all part of a long-term plan (outlined here) to make accounting for sex differences a prerequisite for federal funding. And the implications are big. For instance, women often experience heart attacks differently, which means they take longer to detect. More research, said NIH associate director for research on women's health Janine Clayton, could help improve response. And before you ask But What About the Menz, consider this:

One such instance is traumatic brain injury — women tend to recover faster than men. For some reason, women's brains seem to have a protective benefit that researchers don't understand. So "imagine if we knew more," Clayton said, "and could take lessons learned from the female brain to help men and boys recover faster."


You're welcome in advance, gents.

Photo via A and N photography/Shutterstock.

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As a former biologist, I have a few firsthand thoughts on this.

Firstly, the NIH funds basic science (e.g., What does this gene do?) and pre-clinical (e.g., How does this gene contribute to Disease X?) research. The vast majority of NIH-funded research studies use animals (primarily mice), not people. This is very different from not using women in clinical studies or the lack of focus on women's health issues.

Most researchers (especially those in molecular biology and genetics) have used only male lab animals for decades. It may seem like they're being jerky jerkfaces, but honestly it just makes the science easier.

Being able to make sense of scientific experiments requires keeping all conditions (or as many as possible) the same except for the one you're testing. Males are more similar day-to-day: if he's sitting on his ass watching football one weekend, he's doing the same fucking thing the next. Similarly, a male lab mouse will express the same pattern of genes (that is, the body is doing the same thing on a cellular level) day-to-day as long as diet, water, stress, day length and other factors are kept constant. On the other hand, the gene expression and metabolism of a female lab mouse can change significantly through her estrus/menstrual cycle.

Consider the following experiment where you want to test the effect of a drug on a gene/process/&c. suggested to be involved in wound healing or whatever.

With male mice, you take a total of say 40 mice, divide them into two groups, give one the drug, the other a placebo and measure the results.

With female mice, you first perform a separate study to determine how the gene/process/&c. of interest naturally varies throughout the mouse's cycle. Sometimes there is no change, but many times there is. Let's say it turns out to be a simple wave pattern (ride the wave!) that you can divide into low, rising, high and falling phases. You then take 160+ lady mice, divide them into two groups, give one the drug, another a placebo and then measure both the effect of the drug and the point in the estrus cycle during which you took them measurement. You then hope you have enough mice in each of the low, rising, high and falling groups and compare the drug/placebo different between each of those groups. So you've sacrificed four times the number of animals and spent more than four times the money for the same results with the additional source of error of your possible mis-measurement of the phase in the estrus cycle.

That being said, there are novel processes and entirely new views on biology that are being missed by never using female animals. Ideally, you would go back and do the second experiment with females after gaining a basic grasp on the process with a male-only study. Unfortunately, they have almost never been done. I'm overjoyed the NIH is finally putting a big wallet behind getting these done.