NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Do We Need Male and Female Equality in Health Research?

September 4, 2014

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) recently announced it will now require all NIH-funded experiments to use equal numbers of male and female animals when testing new drugs. The new policy is a response to concerns women's health could be put at risk because medical researchers generally use male subjects in their experiments.

But Douglas Fields, a neuroscientist, writes in Scientific American that the new policy will only harm both women and men because it will make it more difficult to test and understand the effects of new drugs. He explains how drug testing works:

  • Testing new medicines requires a comparison between a control group (which receives no medicine at all) and an experimental group (which is treated with the new drug).
  • Typically, results form a bell-shaped curve, with most animals responding in a similar way, but others showing some form of variation in response.
  • The greater the amount of variation, the harder it is to conclude whether the proposed drug is having an effect.

As a result, scientists try to limit as much variation as possible by using animals of the same age and, often, the same sex. Because males and females are different, testing them together increases the likelihood of variations in responses and, consequently, the likelihood scientists will fail to see important effects of the drug.

Fields writes that requiring both males and females as test subjects requires more money, more time and more effort on the part of researchers. He encourages the NIH to conduct its own research on sex differences, rather than mandating scientists have gender parity in their experiments.

Source: R. Douglas Fields, "Vive la Difference," Scientific American, September 2014. 


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