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Biomedicine's Male Bias Is Yet Another Example of Everyday Gender Inequality... and More

26/03/2014 10:28 GMT | Updated 25/05/2014 10:59 BST

Speaking for myself at least, today's women have never had it so hairy. For a seemingly implausible moment earlier this year we followed Cameron Diaz's lead http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/jan/19/year-of-the-bush-female-body-hair-cameron-diaz-pubicand embraced a new found relationship with our body hair and spent longer sprucing our coiffures down there than up there before leaving the house. But if you needed any proof that gender inequality still has a long way to go then I urge you to pocket your teaser comb because women still have many a bra to burn over what I had naively assumed a level playing field: health research.

Leaving aside for a moment the hard fought token victories won in the workplace or the blood letting battles waged over the hover in the home, gender inequality flourishes like a festering Petri dish in medical research. A recent research report entitled "Sex-Specific Medical Research: Why Women's Health Can't Wait," http://www.brighamandwomens.org/Departments_and_Services/womenshealth/ConnorsCenter/Policy/summithome.aspx shows that male subjects are studied much more than females in clinical cohorts, and medical texts reflect male, rather than male and female, biology.

"When we fail to routinely consider the impact of sex and gender in research, we are leaving health to chance," says Dr Paula Johnson, Director of the Connors Center for Women's Health and Gender Biology. It's as risky as it is depressing.

In the year of the bush, we've been lulled into believing the gender battle has shifted beyond the fundamentals, like a right to equal health care, so these revelations are nothing if not shocking. If our health is based upon a research system that only applies to one half of the population then make me a waxing appointment any day.

Now I get why the tablets I've been taking for my over active thyroid don't make me feel much better- they were developed on men for men, even for a disease like mine that affects 15 times as many women as men http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16251589.

I don't know about you but this exclusive attitude to medical research makes my skin crawl. We give them our money in good faith that they will spend it in our best interests- tough luck if we happen to fall in the 50% of the population excluded by their research. Scientists tell us they are driven to finding cures, cures for some maybe, but not for us. Do you feel a lump rising in your throat as well?

The biological and health differences between men and women are everywhere in medicine. Even I could have told you that women live longer than men. But some of the differences are really quite extraordinary http://alternativestoanimalresearch.org/assets/BiologicalSexDifferences-Implications.pdf.Men and women suffer from different diseases or differently from the same diseases with different severity, symptoms and survival rates. We process and respond differently to the same drugs too, meaning different doses are required and different side effects occur. These different reactions to drugs as a result of failing to properly ascertain and account for gender differences in drug development are not trivial, and can have very serious consequences. For example, women have a greater propensity to drug induced heart irregularities that may lead to anything from palpitations and fainting to cardiac arrest and sudden death. If clinical research is over represented with males, it raises serious questions about the impact of current science on those diseases that disproportionately impact women like my autoimmune thyroid condition and lung cancer, heart disease, Alzheimer's disease and depression.

But if the differences between sexes of the same species are so profound and diverse then imagine the differences with other species with whom we share even less genetics, biochemistry and physiology. The idea of researching on non human species altogether only raises further questions over the scientific process.

Just like researchers need to be held to account on the inherent sex bias of their work they also need to answer for their non human obsession. Research conducted on non human species is even more irrelevant and non predictive of the human response than male data is for females. The abysmal 94% of drugs that pass animal tests but fail in humans is testament to this. It also explains why all 85 HIV vaccines successfully developed in non human primates have failed in human trials and why 95% of drugs that are effective against cancer in animals are non effective in humans. Perhaps they really mean cures for animals because we are all excluded from this research. Getting the species right is even more crucial than allowing for gender differences then.

Even as a GCSE biology student I knew instinctively it was wrong. The slippery green amphibian I was given to slice up bore as little resemblance to a human on the inside as it did on the outside. A hesitant group of us awkwardly requested to sit out of dissection classes henceforth. But we still all passed our exams.

Meanwhile, the rest of medicine is progressing in the opposite direction tailoring a health care package that fits the individual; one that reflects each patient's unique genetic, biochemical and lifestyle profile. Carrying out research on species as biologically divergent to us as a mouse is as folly as it is to expect extrapolating data from a male to be of any relevance to a female patient. The biology just doesn't work. Earlier this year, we were celebrating the emancipation of body hair. It was prickly and strange but still a victory in a private kind of way. But now it all seems much hairier than even that. It's a mark of how far there is still to go if we are still unable to achieve health equity for men and women in the 21st century. If not a voluminous pudenda what does it take to show we are not mice or men but women?