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It is time that research studies reflect the differences between men and women (2017-01-04)

People might assume that researchers who test drugs and companies that make medicines take sex differences into account. After all, we are accustomed to lots of things being sex-specific. There’s clothing created for females and bicycles built for females. There are replacement knees designed to accommodate not only females’ size but also gait and weight distribution. Females, unsurprisingly, are different than males.

Still, almost no one is paying attention to the fact that sex matters on a cellular level.
Femaleness and maleness are more than the sum of an individual’s genitalia. The difference is manifest in our molecules—the very enzymes that metabolize the drugs we take, for instance.

Mounting evidence around the globe reveals differences in men’s and women’s responses to pathogens as well as therapies, no matter whether we’re looking at Zika, malaria, flu, lupus or heart disease.
The mere fact that 80 percent of all autoimmune disease patients are women should be a red flag that women’s immune systems respond differently than men’s.

It’s time to rethink biological sex differences on a very fundamental level. We need to design research studies from the outset to compare the sexes by making an a priori hypothesis that males and females will be different.

Not a single vaccine is sex-specific.
The HPV vaccine, a beautiful preventive measure, is an interesting example. It’s the only one I can think of where dosage and schedule all are based on trials for girls. And once we realized the vaccine could protect boys too, we simply applied data collected from girls to boys.

But now data about the HPV vaccine show a higher antibody response in girls than in boys.
You might ask: If the response in boys is high enough to protect them, who cares?

More and more of us do, in fact. The dogma—that sex doesn’t matter—is changing.

If you survey the old data for measles and polio vaccination, you’ll see that females suffered mortality at higher rates with those vaccines too. So at what point do we stop saying, ‘Well, with malaria it was all due to chance’? Was it all due to chance with measles? With the oral polio vaccine?

This isn’t just about vaccines. It’s also about drugs that are widely prescribed for common disorders.

For example: Women metabolize zolpidem, the active ingredient in sleep medications, more slowly than men.
That 2012 discovery came after two decades of women overdosing on a drug known to significantly impair driving—on the advice of their doctors.

In 2010, for instance, women experienced more than two-thirds of all 64,000 zolpidem-related emergencies.

In January 2013, the FDA warned that the recommended dose for women should be halved, a change now incorporated in the drug directions.

There needs to be more of that. Despite studies showing that in women, a half dose of the flu vaccine is as effective as a full dose and may cause fewer adverse reactions, the FDA still recommends that men and women receive the same full dose annually.

See also
How Being Male or Female Can Affect Your Health (2016-06-05)

For more information
Sex Matters

Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health