In a time where our world leaders throw around “alternative facts” and falsehoods like shade in you and your bestie’s group chat, we often find comfort in headlines that contain phrases like, “New study shows…” and “Scientists discover the key to…” Science is, after all, the antithesis to the current state of affairs: orderly, rational, objective, data-driven...at least in theory. In practice, science is flawed and chaotic, as most disciplines are, and can succumb to bias and subjectivity. Furthermore, how science is conducted and what is deemed “research-worthy” has been overwhelmingly decided by men. That is not to discount the important contributions of many pioneering women scientists, such as Jane Cook Wright, Rosalind Franklin, or Madame Marie Curie. This highlights, instead, a systematic problem of who controls the search for truth (the ultimate goal of science) and how we decide which truths are worth pursuing. In the biomedical sciences in particular, this has immensely important implications for women’s health.
Most research on human-health related topics utilizes some type of animal to model the disease, typically rodents. For decades, researchers excluded female rodents from their studies, unless they were investigating a disease predominantly affecting women, such as breast cancer. Why you might ask? One (bad) reason female animals were excluded from biomedical studies is the estrous cycle (commonly referred to as the menstrual cycle in women), which can complicate drug pharmacology. Yet, excluding female animals because their biology complicates things is a set up for failure if the end goal is to cure disease in women. A very popular example of this occurred with the sleep medication Ambien. Studies of the drug were conducted exclusively in male animals and men in clinical trials. This led scientists to overlook the fact that Ambien remains in women's bodies for a longer period of time, causing prolonged drowsiness that could pose safety risks say, if you're driving to work early one morning after taking an Ambien the night before. Similarly, Seldane, an antihistamine, is one of several drugs that has an increased risk of inducing heart arrhythmias in women compared to men. This fact, again, was overlooked due to the exclusion of women in clinical trials prior to the drug hitting the market.
Given the historical precedent of scientists only using male rodents, there is a larger body of literature with which a scientist today can compare their results. This was used to justify continuing to only use male rodents. If there is one thing you learn as a scientist, however, it is how easily you can miss the obvious by designing your research based on dogma. Indeed, a recent study demonstrated that in male and female mice, different groups of cells are used to process pain. This has incredibly important implications for the treatment of pain and suggests drugs that may work well in men may not work well in women, and vice versa.
Fortunately, as I said before, the goal of science is to uncover truth. Eventually, when presented with evidence of systematic flaws, institutions driving scientific discovery set forth new guidelines and requirements to curb bad practices. In 2015, the National Institutes of Health revised its grant submission policy, prohibiting the exclusion of animals based on sex from proposed research initiatives, barring “strong justification.” Hopefully this, in combination with efforts to increase the number of women and under-represented minorities leading research teams both at universities and in the private sector, will help the scientific community to avoid similar “oversights” (side-eye) in the future.
Theanne Griffith, Ph.D., is a neuroscientist and researcher at Columbia University. She studies how sensory signals are encoded by our nervous system. In addition to research, she enjoys sharing the wonders of the nervous system with young minds through writing picture books.