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Promoting the integration of the gender dimension in basic research in ERA/FP7

Final Report Summary - GENDERBASIC (Promoting the integration of the gender dimension in basic research in ERA/FP7)

The driving force behind the GENDERBASIC project is the EU gender equality policy for research. GENDERBASIC focused on the gender dimension of the research content by stimulating attention to sex differences and gender effects in biomedical and health related research. Its aim is for innovation of biomedical and health related research practices.

When it comes to the life sciences, sex matters, and scientists need to take this into account when carrying out research, according to the GENDERBASIC project. Thanks to a combination of biological (sex) and social (gender) differences, men and women face different risks from a number of diseases and conditions; for example, women are twice as likely as men to develop multiple sclerosis, a chronic illness that affects the nervous system.

Meanwhile men have a higher risk of heart attacks, but many women suffer from a different form of heart disease that is easily missed by standard tests. Furthermore, men and women often respond very differently to drugs. Yet all too often, scientists fail to take these differences into account when designing and performing research and analysing their results. As a result, many women are subjected to tests and given drugs which have only been tested on men.

The EU sought to address this problem by requiring projects funded under the research, technology and development (RTD) Framework Programmes to submit a gender action plan. However, evaluations revealed that there was often a gap between what was written in the gender action plan and what happened in practice. The GENDERBASIC project has come up with a set of practical tools, examples and best practice recommendations to help scientists incorporate sex and gender differences into their research more effectively.

The project team analysed the factors which facilitated or inhibited the incorporation of the gender dimension into basic / preclinical, clinical and public health research in selected EU funded life sciences projects and at leading European research institutes. They also commissioned international experts on sex, gender and health to write review articles on the relevant methodological, practical, ethical and financial issues as well as the impacts of sex and gender on a number of diseases and conditions.

Based on their analyses, the GENDERBASIC scientists produced a set of recommendations to help scientists, funding agencies, the pharmaceutical industry, governments and other stakeholders ensure that sex and gender differences are given the attention they deserve.

The review articles commissioned by the project highlight the extent to which disease susceptibility differs between the sexes. For example, before puberty, asthma is more common in boys than in girls. In adulthood however, it is more common in women than in men. Asthma is an extremely complex disease, with many genetic and environmental factors contributing to its development. The scientists speculate that a combination of hormonal changes and genetic susceptibility could contribute to the change in prevalence during adolescence.

Among other things, the paper calls for more studies in animals investigating the observed differences between males and females and their susceptibility to hormonal and environmental factors in relation to lung development. It also underlines the importance of studying differences in response to treatments. Another article reveals how the absence of gender balance in the research can also have negative consequences for men. The paper is about osteoporosis and fracture risk research. Sex hormones play an important role in bone development, and differences in the levels of these hormones mean that men have structurally stronger bones, are less likely to develop bone loss than women, and so experience fewer fractures than women.

Currently, much of our understanding of osteoporosis and fracture risk is based on research on women, and most of the drugs used to treat osteoporosis were only tested on women. In contrast, detailed data on men is lacking. Osteoporosis and fracture risk are under diagnosed in women, but the problem is even greater in men. This problem is compounded by the fact that because women have more frequent screening opportunities than men, their problems are usually picked up at an earlier stage. For both examples, studying the impact of gender role behaviour in relation to disease development and management was emphasised. The study of the interaction of sex and gender from a life course perspective was firmly put on the research agenda.

If the research community is to tackle this serious problem, action is needed on a number of fronts. Among other things, the project partners recommend that research studies and clinical trials should include both men and women as subjects, and if this is not the case, researchers should explain why one sex has been left out. Furthermore, results should be disaggregated by sex. This consideration of the impact of sex on health outcomes should also be considered by those carrying out research on animals or on tissue samples taken from humans. Research funding agencies are called on to promote research that links biomedical and social dimensions, including gender dimensions. The editorial boards of journals are encouraged to request that papers present data disaggregated by sex and explain sex and gender differences adequately.

Meanwhile, the GENDERBASIC researchers are still driving forward their aim of integrating sex and gender into research. They are particularly keen to turn their results into a training module, aimed at the research community, on the sex and gender aspects of biomedical and public health research.

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