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Science still slights sex differences

Advocates take researchers to task for ignoring gender's role in health

Wednesday, May 11, 2005


Star-Ledger Staff

Once even the lab rats all were male.

Now medical researchers routinely enroll women in health studies as well as men, and in the past decade a wealth of data has emerged to show that men and women differ in more than just the obvious ways.

Advocates who pushed to get more women in health studies yesterday criticized the federal government for doing little to understand sex differences and to use the information to improve the health of both men and women.

"We need to get at the biology of these differences, and develop an understanding that can lead to better health," said Sherry A. Marts, vice president of scientific affairs for the Washington-based Society for Women's Health Research.

The society yesterday released an analysis of grants handed out by the National Institutes of Health that found the health institutes with the largest budgets awarded the smallest percentage of grants to study sex differences.

The National Cancer Institute, for instance, awarded .6 percent of its grants to study sex differences from 2000 to 2003; the National Heart, Lung and Blood awarded 1.3 percent; and the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases awarded .6 percent of its grants to research sex differences.

In contrast, the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism awarded nearly 8 percent of its grants to study sex differences.

The average was 3 percent.

A spokeswoman for the NIH's Office of Research on Women's Health said the director, Vivian Pinn, declined to comment yesterday.

"She was not invited to the press conference, and she has not read the report," the spokeswoman said.

Marts said men and women differ on a cellular level. Women, for instance, are far more likely to develop autoimmune disorders such as lupus and rheumatoid arthritis. But men who get autoimmune diseases often get more severe cases.

Women appear to be more sensitive to the toxins in tobacco smoke and develop lung cancer more quickly than men. Men develop heart disease earlier in their lives than women do, and the form of heart disease they develop is different from the form that most women develop, Marts said.

"If we can discover what is protecting women from early heart attacks, maybe we can prevent these heart attacks in men," Marts said.

She said the differences between the sexes are not merely hormonal, and begin at the moment of fertilization.

"sex differences are found in virtually every system in the body, from tissue and muscles. The heart. The liver. The immune system," she said.

The association formed in 1990 to push for better research into women's health. Before that time, most major studies were done on men, and the findings were expected to hold true for women. Now, more than half of the people enrolled in NIH studies are women.

The society announced the findings of the analysis yesterday at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. Several speakers said research into sex differences is developing into a mature science.

Saralyn Mark, a medical advisor to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, said NASA is discovering that men and women respond differently to the rigors of space travel.

Men's muscle tone deteriorates more quickly in space than women's muscle tone, while women are more likely to suffer from orthostatic hypotension, or dizziness, upon re-entry to Earth.

Studies are finding that men and women respond differently to medications, such as those used to treat epilepsy and high blood pressure.

U.S. Rep. Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.), at the news conference yesterday, credited the society for getting women in clinical trials.

"We've found that what's good for the goose is not necessarily good for the gander," she said.

Carol Ann Campbell covers medicine. She may be reached at ccamp bell@starledger.com or (973) 392-4148.

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