Sex-based Discrimination in Medical Trials Needs to End

Female patients are being left out, even though diseases do not discriminate.

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By Bonnie Erbe, Thomas Jefferson Street blog.

This not just about health, it's also about politics: gender politics. A new major survey of government-funded and private clinical cancer trials shows women are not represented fairly in research published in the world's most prestigious medical journals. And if we're underrepresented in those trials, it's a safe bet we're not any better represented in less influential research trials.

When my esteemed colleague Dr. Bernadine Healy ran the National Institutes of Health under the first President Bush, she instituted the first long-term study of how men's bodies and women's bodies react differently to treatments for all diseases, called the Women's Health Initiative. We owe much of what we know today about how men and women need different doses or altogether different drugs to battle the same diseases, or respond differently to similar types of surgery, due to her work. But her work began almost two-and-a-half decades ago, and it's unconscionable that gender bias in medical trials still exists:

Researchers analyzed 661 prospective studies about types of cancer that afflict both genders at relatively equal rates, including colon cancer, oral cancers, lung cancer, brain tumors and lymphomas. The studies included more than one million participants in all.

Women made up 37 percent of participants in studies not receiving government funding. Studies receiving government funding had a slightly better record of including women, with women representing 41 percent of participants, the analysis showed.

"In the vast majority of individual studies we analyzed, fewer women were enrolled than we would expect given the proportion of women diagnosed with the type of cancer being studied," study author Dr. Reshma Jagsi, assistant professor of radiation oncology at the University of Michigan Medical School, said in a university news release.

Why is this still the case? Perhaps it is because old habits die hard. Perhaps researchers need to do a better job recruiting women patients. Whatever the reason, this needs to end and soon.

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