Among the drugs that have been withdrawn from the market, 80% were removed because of the severe side effects they caused in women. This is no surprise to Cara Tannenbaum, professor in the faculties of Medicine and Pharmacy at Université de Montréal. “Medicine and pharmacology are not adapted to women and even less so to senior women,” she explains. For instance, studies have revealed that the female metabolism eliminates anti-anxiety drugs such as sleeping pills less rapidly than its male counterpart. As a result, women may still be drowsy up to eight hours after taking a sleeping pill, affecting their reflexes in the early hours of the day and increasing their risk of accident.
Changing the gender of drugs
When she specialized in geriatric medicine in the late 1990s, Cara Tannenbaum noted that clinical studies hardly ever included senior women. By delving further into the issue, she also discovered that many drugs are developed solely on male animal models and then tested only on young men. This is the case for anti-anxiety medications, which are mainly prescribed to older women. Her findings raised a flag: how could anyone think that a drug that is effective in a 25-year-old man could be adapted to the physiology of a woman in her eighties?
The conclusions prompted Dr. Tannenbaum to take up the cause and promote personalized medicine that is aligned with the realities of women and senior women and men. She conducted a survey of some 5 000 Canadian women to learn more about their health concerns and created a women’s health outpatient clinic. She also carried out research to counter the taboo topics of urinary incontinence and mental health and made drug side effects her key focus. In recognition of her work to close the gender gap in academic medicine in Canada, she was awarded the May-Cohen Gender Equity Award.
In 2015, Cara Tannenbaum was appointed scientific director of the CIHR Institute of Gender and Health. Since then, she has made it her mission to ensure that research funding supports men and women, that studies include female animal models and that new drugs are tested on women of all ages.
The gender of health research funding
When she assessed the research projects submitted to the CIHR, Cara Tannenbaum found that gender equality was also an issue in research funding. “Only 28% of funded projects were led by women!” she asserts. When she took a closer look at the granting process, she identified a few cases of unintentional favouritism toward men, especially when evaluating the leadership criterion. Determined to rectify the bias, she created online training for grant application reviewers. The results were immediate: the success rates of male and female applicants to the most recent edition of the CIHR Foundation grant program competition were the same. Proof that change is possible!