Doctors Test Whether Female Sex Hormones Could Help Men Fight COVID-19

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A man wearing a face mask walks past a mural in support of health workers during the outbreak of COVID-19 in Arlington, Virginia, on May 6, 2020. (Olivier Douliery/AFP/Getty Images)
A man wearing a face mask walks past a mural in support of health workers during the outbreak of COVID-19 in Arlington, Virginia, on May 6, 2020. (Olivier Douliery/AFP/Getty Images)

Researchers are now finding more evidence that gender could play a role in who gets sick from the coronavirus. Globally, women who contract COVID-19 have been less likely than men to get really sick or die.

This week, researchers in Los Angeles have begun giving male coronavirus patients the hormone progesterone, mainly found in women, to see if that helps them recover.

One of the researchers, Dr. Sara Ghandehari, a pulmonologist and intensive care doctor at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, says she began noticing more men than women in the intensive care unit as a result of COVID-19.

“The difference is pretty striking,” she says. “There are definitely more men on the ventilators.”

Ghandehari believes progesterone might be beneficial because of the hormone’s anti-inflammatory properties, which reduce the inflammatory response of immune cells thus decreasing the “abnormalities” that male coronavirus patients are experiencing.

The study is in its infancy stages: 40 men who have tested positive for the coronavirus receive two shots of progesterone for five days.

To “really know the results,” Ghandehari says they’ll need to test and evaluate more patients. The research is designed in a randomized format where half receive the hormone treatment and half receive standard care.

“The difference is pretty striking. There are definitely more men on the ventilators.”

Dr. Sara Ghandehari

“The folks that have received the progesterone, they have tolerated [the hormone] really well without any side effects,” she says. “And as far as results go, hopefully soon we'll have more information.”

If administered in short-term doses, the potential dangers of giving men a female sex hormone are “very, very low,” she says. And at a higher amount, she says progesterone has been given to men in various trials, including one for traumatic brain injuries.

“So it is not a completely new idea,” she says. “And hormones, in particular progesterone, have been administered in men before, but it hasn't been used in this sort of a setting where you're using it to treat or potentially affect an infection as we're using it in this trial.”

At first, researchers believed the difference between the severity of sickness in female and male coronavirus patients were the risk factors.

“Perhaps more men have high blood pressure, there's more incidence of obesity, maybe there is more smoking history,” she says. “As far as whether or not those are things that are contributing to the difference that we see, we really don't know.”


Ghandehari says the hope in using progesterone is to find a way to reduce inflammation, but more testing will be needed.

“We have to really evaluate these in proper clinical trials to see whether or not these make a difference and really collaborate and understand what we're trying to achieve,” she says.

Correction: In an earlier version of this web article, we incorrectly state that in various trials, progesterone has helped men with traumatic brain injuries. In fact, progesterone has only been considered a possibility that it might help them. We regret the error. 

Jill Ryan produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Tinku RaySerena McMahon adapted it for the web.

This article was originally published on May 12, 2020.

This segment aired on May 12, 2020.


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