After years of lagging behind, women’s health research is beginning to deliver significant improvements to health outcomes for women and inclusion of women in research. Women’s life expectancy has increased from 71 years in 1950 to 81 years in 2013; breast cancer deaths have declined from 33.3 per 100,000 women in 1990 to 20.8 per 100,000 women in 2013; more than 50% of participants in NIH-funded clinical trials are women. Despite this significant progress, there remain concerns that the historic lack of inclusion of women in clinical research have resulted in decisions to be made about health care for women based solely on findings from studies of men.
At a recent briefing “Rock Stars of Research: Scientists Who Are Shaping the Future of Women’s Health” hosted by the Endocrine Society and Northwestern University in recognition of Women’s Health Research Week, experts discussed the future of women’s health care and the research that so critically supports it. Dr. Janine Clayton, Director of NIH Office of Research on Women’s Health (ORWH), began by sharing the history of women’s health at NIH and touted the progress made through the 21st Century Cures Act as well as through ORWH signature programs that have pursued the “ultimate goal of advancing rigorous research relevant to women’s health.” One key step for NIH was the implementation of their Sex as a Biological Variable (SABV) policy in 2015 requiring that sex as a biological variable be factored into research designs, analyses, and reporting in studies funded by NIH. Dr. Clayton explained that factoring biological sex into research not only results in a more complete knowledge base, but improves better health for both sexes.
After explaining the current research landscape, Dr. Teresa Wood, founder and director of the Women’s Health Research Institute at Northwestern, and Dr. Hadine Joffe, executive director of the Mary Horrigan Connors Center for Women's Health and Gender Biology at Brigham and Women's Hospital, a Research!America alliance member, spoke about the future of women’s health. Both pointed to personalized medicine (the tailoring of medical treatment to the individual characteristics of each patient) producing better diagnoses, earlier interventions, and more-efficient drug therapies. Improved understanding of differences between sexes will be key to accomplishing this individualized care.
All three panelists emphasized the importance of increased NIH funding for women’s health research as well as continued leadership from NIH and ORWH in fostering inclusion of women and biological sex variance in clinical research to ensure continued progress towards improved health for all.
Photo: From left to right: Dr. Teresa K. Woodruff, Dr. Janine Austin Clayton, Dr. Hadine Joffe; used with permission from www.endocrine.org.