Medicines for Diseases that Strike Women

Medical researchers are making progress into understanding why women suffer disproportionately from a number of diseases.

Those insights are providing information to help develop medicines to attack diseases such as osteoporosis, multiple sclerosis, depression, rheumatoid arthritis and age-related macular degeneration, all of which affect more women than men. 

Currently, 851 medicines are in development for diseases that exclusively or disproportionately affect women, according to a report unveiled Thursday (May 12) by the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA).

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The number includes 139 for cancers that affect women and 110 for autoimmune diseases, which strike women three times more often than men. The medicines are all either in human clinical trials or are awaiting review by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

“As recently as a couple decades ago, there was a basic assumption that what was good medically for men was good for women in almost every case,” said PhRMA president and CEO John J. Castellani.

“Today, our increasing knowledge of the less obvious differences between men and women is providing great promise for new and better treatments that will benefit both sexes.”

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About 90% of Americans suffering from lupus, migraines and fibromyalgia are women. Not only are women more prone to certain diseases, but the symptoms they present may be different.

Men having heart attacks, for example, typically report chest pain that radiates down the arm, and those are the symptoms many doctors look for even today. Women may instead feel indigestion, extreme fatigue and nausea.

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Among other variables, researchers developing medicines for women must take into account the possible differences in the ways men and women metabolize certain substances.

For example, researchers have found that women metabolize nicotine more quickly than men, so a lower-dose nicotine patch for smoking cessation may not be as effective for women as a similar dose for men.

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Some of the most promising work is in the area of autoimmune diseases, which involve the body’s immune system attacking some part of the body that it mistakenly perceives as foreign. About 23.5 million Americans, most of them women, suffer from an autoimmune disease such as multiple sclerosis and rheumatoid arthritis.

A better understanding of how women react differently to stress than men is helping researchers understand how to approach treatments for autoimmune diseases and psychiatric illnesses such as depression and anxiety.

The Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA) represents the country’s leading pharmaceutical research and biotechnology companies, which are devoted to inventing medicines that allow patients to live longer, healthier, and more productive lives.

PhRMA companies are leading the way in the search for new cures. It says PhRMA members alone invested an estimated $49.4 billion in 2010 in discovering and developing new medicines. Industry-wide research and investment reached a record $67.4 billion in 2010.

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Rakesh Raman