Can adaptations observed in female animals be used to inspire solutions to unmet women’s health challenges? Research suggests that this approach, known as bio-inspired medicine, may hold promise. Barbara Natterson-Horowitz, cardiologist and professor of medicine at the University of California, Los Angeles, specializes in bio-inspired medicine and reported in Scientific American on how the emerging field could influence women’s health research.
Women Are Under-Represented in Research
Biomedical research has long given males priority over females, contributing to a relative lack of evidence to guide women’s healthcare. To receive funding from the National Institutes of Health, clinical trials now must include women, but this was not the case until 1993. It wasn’t until 2015 that the NIH first mandated that female laboratory animals must be included in preclinical safety studies of new medical treatments.
Species-spanning research is one way to close the gap created by these long-held policies and the fact that medical research in humans is disproportionately focused on men.
What Can We Learn from Females in the Wild?
The survival of any mammal species hinges on females being healthy enough to overcome the physical challenges of pregnancy and childbirth. The animal world provides examples of these challenges among both predators and prey. For instance, to evade predators, giraffes, gazelles, and zebras have physiological adaptations that allow them to maintain stamina and speed during pregnancy. Even with the added weight of a pregnancy, they must be just as fast and agile as their nonpregnant peers to flee from predators. Those predators, including cheetahs and hyenas, are similarly adapted so that they can successfully capture prey during pregnancy. Medical and biomedical research can gain valuable insights from studying these adaptations.
Pregnancy and the Heart
During pregnancy, a woman’s circulatory system transforms. Because almost 50 percent more blood has to circulate, the cardiac cells and parts of the heart responsible for pumping blood grow and change shape. If this process is disrupted, women can experience reduced heart function and heart failure. Studies of giraffes are investigating how they avoid this condition.
Protective Genetic Factors
Giraffes’ long necks put greater pressure on the heart muscle since it must work harder to pump blood to the brain. Despite this increased blood pressure, the animals are not at risk for fibrosis and heart failure, which is linked to increased blood pressure in humans. To uncover why this is the case, researchers at the Northwestern Polytechnical University in Xi’an, China, investigated the giraffe genome. Led by Chang Liu, the team reported that giraffes and okapis, their evolutionary relatives, have unique genetic mutations that protect them from diseases associated with high blood pressure.
Their research identified FGFRL1 as one of the affected genes. The scientists used CRISPR technology to produce mice that expressed a giraffe-like FGFRL1 variant. Compared to a control group, the modified mice showed significantly less fibrosis in the heart after 28 days of exposure to a hormone that causes increased blood pressure. In addition, ongoing research is investigating how pregnant giraffes maintain high blood pressure without experiencing the same health consequences that affect women.
Cancer Risk Across Species
Breast cancer can occur in almost all mammalian animals, including dogs and cats. Some dog breeds have increased risk due to the same BRCA mutations that heighten risk among women. As in humans, the environment can also be a risk factor. Although whales are more likely to experience leukemia and lymphoma than breast cancer, researchers identified breast cancer as the cause of death for 27 percent of the belugas examined near the St. Lawrence Estuary near Montreal between 1983 and 1999. The scientists determined that carcinogenic chemicals released from aluminum factories in the area most likely contributed to the elevated cancer rates in the whales and in humans who lived there. In fact, identifying breast cancer in other mammals helped to draw attention to the health risks among humans.
Implications for the Future
These examples demonstrate how the emerging field of bio-inspired medical research is changing how some people think about human health. Over time, researchers hope that insights gained from the study of female animal biology could lead to effective interventions for women’s health concerns.
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