The National Institutes of Health want to end a long-standing bias in biomedical research, towards men. It turns out when researchers do what are called pre-clinical studies, most of the time they’re using male animals and male cells. Today the NIH announced that it has awarded an extra $10 million to help bring more balance into the lab.
Researchers have long preferred male animals and cells, partly because they thought the female menstrual cycle introduced too much variability. That’s not true, says Janine Austin Clayton, director of the Office of Research on Women’s Health at the NIH. This additional funding encourages researchers to study both sexes, she says.
“We’re really looking to transform how science is done, and in order for us to do that, we have to help scientists understand the methods and the benefits of studying both sexes,” Clayton says.
By not studying both sexes, Clayton says we may be missing out on discoveries that could help both men and women. One grant will help look at why women have higher rates of Alzheimer’s disease, for example. Other studies will look at sex differences in stroke, lung disease and alcohol abuse.
But is $10 million enough to change science?
“It will hopefully spill over,” says Kathryn Sandberg, director the Center for the Study of Sex Differences in Health, Aging and Disease at Georgetown University. Researchers will present their work at meetings, and others may become interested, she says.
“I think it’s a good first step,” Sandberg says.
The money won’t just bring more female subjects into the mix. Sarah D’Orazio, an associate professor at the University of Kentucky, has a grant from the NIH to study the immune response in mice to the bacterium Listeria monocytogenes. The extra $100,000 in supplemental funding will help her buy male mice. Each one costs $24, she says, plus shipping and lodging.
“They’re very well cared for here at the University of Kentucky. So I have, basically, a hotel bill that I have to pay for the mice while they’re here during our experiment,” she says.
D’Orazio says she had done small studies with both males and females in the past.
“We had an observation all along that female mice were much more susceptible to the infection, and we just didn’t really have the funding to follow up on that observation,” D’Orazio says.
If she can prove there is a difference, D’Orazio says she could get more funding to study why and develop treatments to help women.
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