NIH Grants $10M To Help Erase Research Gender Gap, But Is It Enough?

The National Institutes of Health this morning announced it will distribute more than $10 million in grants to help combat a persistent pattern of gender bias in science and medical research. The New York Times reports:

The researchers will use the additional funds to include more human participants — generally women — in clinical trials and to ensure that their laboratory animals, even cell lines, are representative of both genders. The money also will be used to analyze gender differences in the resulting data, officials said.

Dr. Paula Johnson (courtesy)
Dr. Paula Johnson (courtesy)

But a key advocate on the topic, Dr. Paula Johnson, Chief of the Division of Women’s Health at Brigham & Women’s Hospital, and Executive Director for the Connors Center for Women’s Health and Gender Biology, says this grant represents just a tiny step forward. In this opinion piece, Johnson details some of the critical work still needed order to level the medical research playing field:

Today, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) took a significant step towards improving the health of women by announcing $10.1 million in grants to fund sex-specific medical research. The new funding will allow researchers to better understand the impact sex differences have on disease and thereby more accurately detect and treat illnesses from depression and drug addiction to lung cancer and Alzheimer’s disease.

This latest development is welcome news in a recent series of advancements being made to address the sex and gender inequities that persist in biomedical research.

But despite this progress, the evidence of gender disparities in biomedical research, and the impact they have on the health of both women and men, are so remarkable, it is surprising that the problem has not yet been adequately addressed.

Despite the passage of the historic 1993 NIH Revitalization Act that mandated the inclusion of women and minorities in NIH-funded clinical trials, women are still underrepresented; male mice (and other animals) are still predominant in disease studies; the sex of stem cells are not routinely considered in this promising area of research, and research results are still not consistently analyzed and reported by sex. Even more disturbing is that, in light of these facts, women are disproportionately impacted by a number of diseases including Alzheimer’s disease, some forms of lung cancer found in non-smoking women, depression and aspects of cardiovascular disease.

When we lack sex-specific research, we don’t know why.

While the NIH, and the FDA ought to be commended for their actions to close the gender gap in biomedical research, we need to be vigilant in monitoring a issue that is as complicated as it is overdue. As we outlined in our report, Sex-Specific Medical Research: Why Women’s Health Can’t Wait, government agencies must be held accountable for these inequities and continue to address them through innovative funding mechanisms such as NIH’s new supplemental grant program. But funding is
just one of many strategies that will take a multi-stakeholder approach to solve.

There are a number of parties responsible for accuracy and equity in biomedical research: from regulators and funding agencies; to medical journals and teaching hospitals; to the pharmaceutical and device industry. Sex differences must also be taken into account in all phases of research: from preclinical research with female cells and animals to the inclusion of representative samples of women in all stages of clinical trials to the reporting of data by sex. This NIH funding mechanism is a step toward higher levels of female representation but there is more work to be done.

It will take bold leadership on the part of all these stakeholders, from early stage research through to practice, to see that the progress being made in this area is comprehensive and sustainable.

Headshot of Rachel Zimmerman

Rachel Zimmerman Reporter
Rachel Zimmerman previously reported on health and the intersection of health and business for WBUR. She is working on a memoir about rebuilding her family after her husband’s suicide. 



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