Is cutting-edge cancer therapy sexist? Study finds immunotherapy works half as well for women

Is cutting-edge cancer therapy sexist? Study finds immunotherapy works half as well for women

A pioneering cancer treatment hailed as the future of oncology is significantly less effective for women than for men, new research has revealed, prompting accusations of sexism in drug development.

A major review published in The Lancet found immunotherapy to be, on average, half as beneficial for female cancer sufferers.

The family of drugs stimulates the body’s immune system to destroy cancerous cells while leaving healthy cells intact.

NHS patients with some lung, neck and head cancers already have access to the treatment and it is expected to become available to many more categories of patient over the next few years.

The new analysis – the first of its kind – found consistently better outcomes for men taking the drugs than women, possibly due to immune system and hormonal differences.

However, immunotherapy was still found to be more effective for women than traditional cancer drugs.

The authors found that key drug trials were more likely to have been populated by male than female participants, but that doctors then applied the results equally across the sexes.

It means oncologists have been prescribing immunotherapy to women based on safety and efficacy data gathered predominantly from men.

This raises the risk that female patients will have been given unsafe doses, or prescribed the drug with on the basis of false optimism.

The researchers last night called for frontline doctors to pay greater heed to their patient’s gender when weighing up the risks and benefits of prescribing immunotherapy.

They also said future trials should include more women to make the results more relevant to the whole patient population.

“Despite the available evidence on the potential role played by sex in influencing how drugs work, trials testing new therapies rarely take sex into account,” said Dr Fabio Conforti, from the European Institute of Oncology.

“Both sex and gender can potentially affect the strength of the body’s immune response.”

On average, women mount stronger immune responses than do men, which results in more rapid clearance of pathogens, explaining the lower severity and prevalence of many infections in women, and their greater response to vaccination than men.

However, they females also account for roughly 80% of all patients with systemic autoimmune diseases worldwide.

“Therefore, it’s possible that differences in the immune system of women and men could be relevant to the natural course of chronic inflammatory conditions such as cancer, and potentially how they respond to drugs,” said Dr Conforti.

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