medical research

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A Victory For Women And Medical Research

The New York Times reports that a pair of influential scientists are calling for an end to gender bias in medical research, starting with a warning that researchers must “begin testing their theories in female lab animals and in female tissues and cells.”

From the article:

Name a new drug or treatment, and odds are researchers know far more about its effect on men than on women. From sleeping pills to statins, women have been blindsided by side effects and dosage miscalculations that were not discovered until after the product hit the market.

Now the National Institutes of Health says that this routine gender bias in basic research must end.

In a commentary published on Wednesday in the journal Nature, Dr. Francis Collins, director of the N.I.H., and Dr. Janine A. Clayton, director of the institutes’ Office of Research on Women’s Health, warned scientists that they must begin testing their theories in female lab animals and in female tissues and cells.

The N.I.H. has already taken researchers to task for their failure to include adequate numbers of women in clinical trials. The new announcement is an acknowledgment that this gender disparity begins much earlier in the research process.

“Most scientists want to do the most powerful experiment to get the most durable, powerful answers,” Dr. Collins said in an interview. “For most, this has not been on the radar screen as an important issue. What we’re trying to do here is raise consciousness.”

Women now make up more than half the participants in clinical research funded by the institutes, but it has taken years to get to this point, and women still are often underrepresented in clinical trials carried out by drug companies and medical device manufacturers.

Dr. Paula Johnson (courtesy)

Dr. Paula Johnson (courtesy)

Score a point for Dr. Paula Johnson, executive director of the Connors Center for Women’s Health and Gender Biology
and a professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and Brigham and Women’s Hospital. Johnson, earlier this year, led a coalition of doctors, policymakers and others calling for an overhaul of clinical trials and medical research to address the gender gap.

I asked Johnson for her take on the new NIH stance, and she offered this update:

In March of 2014, the National Policy Summit on Women’s Health brought together policymakers, practitioners, advocates and academics who, for the first time, gathered specifically on the issue of sex and gender inequity in biomedical science. For discussion was a new report, “Sex Specific Medical Research: Why Women’s Health Can’t Wait.” Continue reading

‘Scientists At Risk': Cuts Threaten Boston’s Biomed Research Edge

“Abundance” has always been a choice word in describing the volume of federal funds fueling biomedical research in Boston. However, local researchers won’t be spared from the effects of sequestration, the automatic budget cuts that became law in January.

Federal cuts include National Institutes of Health research grants that have been a central source of funding for biomedical research efforts across the country.  Boston, as a top recipient of the NIH’s largesse, will be hit particularly hard.

National Cancer Institute/Wikimedia Commons

National Cancer Institute/Wikimedia Commons

WBUR’s Bruce Gellerman spoke with Dr. Piyush Gupta, a researcher at MIT’s Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research in Cambridge about the NIH cuts:

More than 30,000 people in Massachusetts work directly in biomedical research. Gupta says that’s due, in large part, to the grants researchers here get from the National Institutes of Health.

“The NIH is the source of funding that sustains laboratory research — the primary source of funding throughout the country,” he said.

For 18 consecutive years, Boston has led the nation among all U.S. cities in the amount of funding from the NIH. Money for biomedical research here last year reached a near record. But the federal sequester calls for cutting the NIH budget by 5 percent, and more over the coming decade.

Massachusetts got $2.3 billion from the NIH last year. That works out to $377 per person. California was a distant second, with $90 per person. And if you look at just Cambridge and Boston, it’s a whopping $3,000 a person.

Veteran biomedical researchers like Dr. Gupta fear that the growing scarcity in federal funds will lead to a more competitive environment and quash the collaborative ethos that currently exists. Continue reading

Medical Research: By Law, It’s All About You

Your tax dollars fund medical research, but your say in what research actually gets done is exactly…zero.

Now, a new, Congressionally-authorized nonprofit born of the Affordable Care Act is proposing a different model: What if medical research were driven not just by profit-seeking drug makers or academic researchers with niche interests? What if, instead, research pursuits bubbled up from patients and their caregivers based on the concerns, confusion and questions that arise from real-life dealings with the health care system?

(DonkeyHotey/flickr)

The Patient-Centered Outcomes Research Institute (PCORI) is the first, and clearly the most ambitious, publicly-funded effort to integrate patients and caregivers more directly in figuring out what works in health care. They’ll be able to push for what they need most, whether it’s more effective asthma treatments, clearer information on childhood vaccines or preventing falls among the elderly.

Eventually, a new body of evidence — by, about and for patients — will be easily accessible to anyone trying to navigate the health care system or seeking reliable data on preventing, diagnosing or treating an illness, says PCORI’s executive director Dr. Joe Selby, formerly the director of research for Kaiser Permanente, Northern California..

What’s Best For Me?

In a radical rethinking of what constitutes “health research,” patients are central to this endeavor and participate in every stage of the process: from generating and selecting study topics to determining the most effective strategies for communicating the results (not everyone subscribes to The New England Journal of Medicine, the thinking goes). PCORI has already spent $31 million to fund 50 pilot projects (out of 856 submitted) and it estimates $427 million in research commitments will be made by the end of 2013. By the close of the decade, PCORI expects to invest about $3 billion in research.

Currently the group is soliciting specific questions from patients and caregivers nationwide that might ultimately be developed into research projects. The questions can be on anything with a clinical focus: basically, any question that begins: “What’s best for someone like me?” qualifies. Continue reading

Globe: Impending Federal Cuts Would Hurt Boston Researchers


The headline sounds a little Halloweeny — “Threat to funds haunts Boston-area labs” — but there’s nothing festive about the frightening prospect described in today’s Globe story. Reporter Rob Weisman writes:

Boston-area teaching hospitals and universities are bracing for deep cuts in the federal funding that has fueled biomedical research for decades, raising fears that breakthrough work on cancer cures, stem cells, gene therapy, and other research will suffer setbacks.

Unless Congress agrees by Dec. 31 on $1.2 trillion in savings to reduce the federal deficit, National Institutes of Health spending will be trimmed by 8.2 percent, or about $2.5 billion annually, according to the Office of Management and Budget projections — part of an across-the-board budget-chopping process known as sequestration.

If that happens, hundreds of jobs and scores of grant proposals at Massachusetts labs could be lost. Some labs are already reassessing staff levels, and scientists worry they might not be able to proceed with crucial studies of serious diseases such as lung cancer and Alzheimer’s.

Frankly, I’ve never been able to get over my bafflement at the hand-to-mouth nature of jobs in science — the fact that the dependence on grants means that even some of our most brilliant scientists are often left wondering whether they’ll still be able to work on their promising projects in a year or two.

And though the NIH budget has technically been flat for the last few years, I’ve already been hearing quite a bit about ever-harder-to-get grants and the damage to delicate laboratory social ecosystems that build up over many years — and can be destroyed with a single committee’s “no.”

Massachusetts, as Rob points out, gets more NIH money per capita than any other state, and stands to lose between $200 and $300 million next year. I imagine office windows going dark from Kendall Square to the Longwood Medical Area. Or am I over-reacting to the usual anti-cut lobbying? Readers, thoughts?