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Why Do Diseases Affect Women Differently Than Men?

Image promoting Illinois Women's Health Registry

Scientists have used predominantly male cells and male animals for their studies even when researching diseases prevalent in women.

As a result, numerous drugs have been removed from the market by the Food and Drug Administration because of serious side effects in women.

To combat this type of narrowly focused research and help researchers uncover why diseases affect women differently than men, the Women's Health Research Institute at Northwestern University developed the Illinois Women’s Health Registry, which links women to scientists and clinical trials throughout the state. Women 18 and older fill out an annual survey about their current health and well-being.

The registry has recently undergone upgrades and will relaunch with mobile- and tablet-friendly platforms Friday, Jan. 25, which coincides with National Women’s Health Research Day, as championed by Congress. 

“If we want to improve our knowledge about women’s health and strive toward truly personalized medicine, we need to assist medical researchers in finding the answers,” said Nicole Woitowich, associate director at the Women’s Health Research Institute. 

Women interested in signing up for the registry can enroll online. The survey takes about 30 minutes to complete. Read more about the registry below.

Women’s Health Research Day

Historically, scientists assumed there was no difference between men and women outside the reproductive system. Today, it is well known that biological sex plays a role in all organ systems throughout the body. For example, autoimmune diseases such as multiple sclerosis or lupus are more likely to affect women than men. Women with glioblastoma tumors respond better to treatment compared to men. 

On Jan. 25, 2016, a landmark policy set forth by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) was implemented that requires scientists to consider sex as a biological variable. This means scientists have to include female cells or female animals in their grant proposals, which was rarely done in the past. 

Teresa Woodruff, director of Northwestern’s Women’s Health Research Institute, was a major advocate for the NIH policy and has continued to celebrate the anniversary of sex inclusion in research every year at the University. This year, the Third Annual Celebration of Sex Inclusive Science will be hosted at Prentice Women’s Hospital (250 E. Superior, third floor, conference room L, on the Chicago campus) from noon to 1 p.m. The event is free and open to the public. 

More about the Illinois Women’s Health Registry

Established in 2009, the registry was created to gather data on large numbers of womenin Illinois to better understand the relationship between health symptoms, health trends and disease. It is intended to foster research in the area of women's health by providing women with personalized information about and access to clinical research opportunities. It aims to include women from diverse social classes and racial/ethnic backgrounds to promote diversity in research. 

In 2017 alone, the registry matched more than 15,000 women to clinical research studies conducted at Northwestern University and other neighboring academic and medical centers.

By Kristin Samuelson

Why Do Diseases Affect Women Differently Than Men? was originally published on the Northwestern University website.