Yesterday, I started writing a blog explaining why sex and gender research was important. I got bogged down in historical background, mandates, and the usual boring facts and justifications. While doing this, my desktop binged and one of several daily notices from federal agencies popped up on my computer. Since I was having writer’s block, I decided to check these new emails….and BINGO….there is was! A news release from the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), one the Institutes at the National Institutes of Health (NIH). The title of the press release was “Common Mechanisms of Drug Abuse and Obesity”. It summarized a study funded by NIDA that will appear in a prestigious journal in May. The study found that some of the same brain mechanisms that fuel drug addictions in humans accompany the emergence of compulsive eating behaviors and the development of obesity in animals. The investigators found that when they gave rats access to varying levels of high-fat foods, they found unrestricted availability alone can trigger addiction-like responses in the brain, leading to compulsive eating behaviors and the onset of obesity. According to one of the study authors, “The results of this study could provide insight into a mechanism for obesity”.
This was all very interesting but what popped out at me was a sentence in the fifth paragraph: Researchers conducted this study in three groups of male rats over a 40-day period. What about female rats! Do they behave the same? Will this study translate to a human study before these findings are tested in female rats? What we do know is that obesity rates are higher in women. How many women reading this have experienced a change of eating urges during their periods? Do hormones play a role here?
Why am I upset? It took decades of advocacy from women to create mandates at the NIH, the major funder of health research, that requires the inclusion of women in federally funded research studies. Recently, there has been a growing debate on whether or not researchers are adequately meeting this mandate. While there are more women’s cancer studies (that may be inflating the % of women who are in studies), diseases like heart disease still do not have equal representations of men and women in clinical trials. This mandate does not trickle down to animal studies, allowing researchers to continue to do basic science work in male animals that are, after all, “easier” (Translated: they don’t have complicated hormone cycles). Too many studies have been conducted in males (animal and human) over the last few decades and the results applied to the whole population–sometimes with detrimental effects. The Adverse Reporting system at the FDA has many more reports of adverse effects of drugs in women than in men……has anyone asked if these drugs have been adequately tested in women???
So, what needs to be done? The inclusionary mandates for research studies requiring both sexes, need to include animal studies. After all, isn’t it much cheaper to do preliminary studies in animal models BEFORE they are applied to humans? Researchers also need to report findings by sex….even if the answer is “they are the same”. Is anyone else asking these questions? Have women really come ‘a long way’?