Breaking the glass ceiling for female guinea pigs

One of my favourite running gags from Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) is the way Marion Ravenwood, Indiana Jones’s love interest in the movie, manages to hold her liquor. First, she outlasts every male brute in a drinking contest in a Nepalese bar. Later, she outwits her captor and Nazi collaborator, the French archaeologist Belloq, by feigning inebriation after pouring themselves one too many drinks. But, despite an appreciation for the humor created by this role reversal, it’s a scenario more unlikely than locating the real Ark of the Covenant. 

Fact is, women and men metabolize alcohol differently. Women generally possess less body water than men of similar height and weight, which means they accumulate higher concentrations of alcohol in their blood after drinking equivalent amounts of alcohol. Women also have smaller quantities of the enzyme dehydrogenase that breaks down alcohol in the stomach. A woman will absorb about 30% more alcohol into her bloodstream than a man of the same weight who has consumed an equal amount of liquor.

And this is only one example of gender divergence in biology. Recent studies, for example, have exposed that: 1) though multiple sclerosis is more prevalent amongst women, they are less likely to have severe symptoms; 2) gender-skewed observations in Parkinson’s disease, schizophrenia, and stroke research; and 3) the finding that stress influences women’s substance abuse more than men.

So, besides the obvious superficial differences, in physiological terms, men and women really do come from different planets. Unfortunately for the Venusians that make up more than 50% of the world population, it seems Big Pharma is controlled by Martians.

In a recent research article published in Nature, two leaders from the US National Institutes of Health, Dr. Francis Collins and Dr. Janine Clayton, strongly urged pharmaceutical companies to start using more female test subjects in early drug trials. Currently, most animal testing is conducted with male pigs, rats or dogs. “The over-reliance on male animals and cells in preclinical research obscures key sex differences that could guide clinical studies,” Collins and Clayton write. “And it might be harmful: women experience higher rates of adverse drug reactions than men do.”

So why do researchers normally prefer male test subjects in early trials? Well, apparently they fear that female hormones and fertility cycles will interfere with the results of carefully calibrated experiments. And developing more varied and detailed tests require lots of additional funds. Never mind if these annoying ‘aberrations’ could actually end up killing women who experience adverse effects to drugs that were never tested for female suitability in its early development (a 2000 study found that eight of ten drugs taken off the market had disproportionately adverse effects on women, including a cardiovascular drug that actually caused heart failure in women).

As Dr Clayton explains, “The sex of the cell makes a huge difference, because the pre-clinical studies, where we’re testing drugs or therapies, are those studies that build the evidence base and inform the clinical studies. So if you are going to be studying a disease that affects both men and women, it’s really important to think about male and female cells and males and females in the animal model work when you are doing that pre-clinical research.”

Of course, pharmaceutical corporations will argue that they’re simply trying to prevent an even worse side effect – the allergic reaction shareholders develop when they see an impacted bottom line.

For now, the American National Institutes of Health have announced that they’re developing policies to require all state funded medical researchers to use a balance of male and female cells and animals for all future preclinical research. As for the corporate world, only one thing will change the status quo – consumer pressure. But for consumer activism to succeed, we first need transparency. And ordinary people face a big challenge in this regard. The pharmaceutical industry is the single biggest lobby group in America, spending nearly three billion dollars in buying influence the last sixteen years (source: opensecrets.org).

Perhaps these corporate behemoths should bear in mind that women control more than 80% of most families’ purchase decisions (anecdotal industry figure), which includes pharmaceuticals. Because, in retail at least, it’s a women’s world. Just imagine what could happen once they realize this…

Raymond Steyn

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