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A look at NIH’s new rules for gender balance in biomedical studies

In May, Francis Collins, MD, PhD, director of the National Institutes of Health, co-authored a Comment piece in Nature, outlining new requirements for biomedical researchers that made balancing the sex of animals and cell lines in studies much more important than they have been in the past. The first changes were set to be implemented this month. But, as Scientific American reported earlier this week,  the NIH isn't likely to implement the changes as quickly as previously thought:

Funding rules, however, have yet to change, with only one week left in the month. Instead, the agency is gathering comments from researchers about which research areas need sex balance the most and the challenges scientists face in including male and female subjects in their studies. Officials have set aside $10.1 million in grants for scientists who want to add animals of the opposite sex to their existing experiments. The NIH is also making videos and online tutorials to teach scientists who are new to studying both sexes how to design such studies. Meanwhile, [Janine A. Clayton, director of the NIH’s Office of Research on Women’s Health] "can't say" when new funding rules will take effect. "Details about the policy and implementation plans will roll out during the next year," she says.

Scientists rely heavily on male animals, rarely using females, and the changes would require some drastic changes for researchers seeking funds from NIH. More from Scientific American:

Once in place and codified, the requirement would be a major shift for the nation’s biomedical labs, many of which study mostly or exclusively male animals. One estimate found that pharmacology studies include five times as many male animals as female ones, while neuroscience studies are skewed 5.5:1 male-to-female.

Scientists assumed biology findings that held in males would apply just as well to females, but a growing body of research has discovered this is not always true. Female and male mice's bodies make different amounts of many proteins, for example. Men and women have differing risks for many health conditions that are not obviously sex-based, including anxiety, depression, hypertension and strokes. Yet those diseases are still predominantly studied in male animals. Scientists who study sex differences think the mismatch might be the reason women suffer more side effects than men do from drugs approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Pharmaceuticals that researchers test mainly on male animals may work better for men than for women.

When the NIH does begin to implement these changes, the first steps will be training staff and grantees on what these changes mean for experimental design. And it should be noted that this isn't the first time that NIH has encouraged sex balance. In 2013, its Office of Research on Women's Health started a program of supplemental grants for currently funded researchers to add enough animals for gender-balanced study results.

Previously: Why it’s critical to study the impact of gender differences on diseases and treatments, Large federal analysis: Hormone therapy shouldn’t be used for chronic-disease prevention and A call to advance research on women’s health issues
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