The gender gap in medical health research has long limited how much we truly know about specifically female health conditions – the likes of endometriosis often underfunded, misunderstood and misdiagnosed.
Which is exactly why one woman wants to test menstrual blood.
It’s almost hard to believe that once a month, millions of women experience menstruation – sometimes with excruciating, bed-bound pain – and yet some scientists don’t believe it’s worthy of extensive research.
But Anna Villarreal, CEO of Boston-based LifeStory Health, says she wants to close the “sex gap” in medical research, and is trying to develop the first non-invasive menstrual blood diagnostic test – aimed specifically at treating female-only diseases.
“Think about it – women’s bodies are different from men’s in nearly every way, yet we diagnose women as if they are men,” she writes in CEO World Magazine.
Villarreal believes gender bias within the medical industry is “putting women’s health at risk” and says that using menstrual blood specifically “provides access to hundreds of unique protein identifiers not found in other blood”.
Even better, she points out that “menstrual blood currently is discarded as medical waste, meaning access to specimens would present an economic approach to testing and research.”
She adds: “It seems incredible that after hundreds of years of research, no one has isolated this approach, but this provides an opportunity to close the sex gap in medical research quickly, effectively, and economically.”
And she’s definitely onto something. In 2014, a study carried out by researchers at the Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, entitled Sex-Specific Medical Research: Why Women’s Health Can’t Wait, detailed the exclusion of women from health research and its implications.
“The science that informs medicine – including the prevention, diagnosis, and treatment of disease – routinely fails to consider the crucial impact of sex and gender,” they wrote.
The researchers found that noting gender in trials is often overlooked and as a result the number of women included within trials isn’t a considered factor.
“This happens in the earliest stages of research, when females are excluded from animal and human studies or the sex of the animals isn’t stated in the published results. Once clinical trials begin, researchers frequently do not enroll adequate numbers of women or, when they do, fail to analyse or report data separately by sex. This hampers our ability to identify important differences that could benefit the health of all.”
Cardiovascular disease is the number one killer of women in the USA, but “only one third of cardiovascular clinical trial subjects are female and only 31% of cardiovascular clinical trials that include women report results by sex”, according to the report.
Although LifeStory Health is in its infancy, Villarreal is determined to change how we view the testing of menstrual blood and address the lack of female medical research and aid the discovery of diagnoses of female-specific diseases.