‘For the longest time, if a drug worked in men it was good enough for women!’

15 Jul 2020

UL PhD researcher Andrew McGovern. Image: FameLab

PhD researcher Andrew McGovern of UL is looking at how women and men are different in the eyes of disease.

After completing his BSc in neuroscience from University College Cork, Andrew McGovern stayed on at the university to do an MSc in medicine. He recently started working towards his PhD at the University of Limerick (UL) where he is also working as a biosciences teaching assistant.

He is passionate about neuroimmunology, science communication and higher-level education. Earlier this year, he was a participant in the finals of the FameLab Ireland science communication competition.

‘People don’t know just how many diseases affect men and women differently’

What inspired you to become a researcher?

I was the child who asked why this happens or how that works. The child that burned the ears of their teachers with questions; I never really grew out of that. Growing up I was never grasping onto my curiosity, it was simply who I am.

Alongside this, I grew up with an autistic sister, Aíne. Trust me when I say my poor mother had an impossible task trying to answer my questions about why Aíne wasn’t coming to primary school with me, or why she’d burst into a room where my friends and I were relaxing and fling dragons at us.

A childhood like this, alongside my perpetual asking how and why, would lead you to wondering how the brain works. I never chose research, I just kept asking questions I wanted answers for and that led me towards science and research.

Can you tell us about the research you’re currently working on?

I am looking at how women and men are different in the eyes of disease. Many diseases don’t treat men and women equally. For example, men are more likely to get Parkinson’s disease and women more likely to get multiple sclerosis or dementia.

We are looking at possible genetic differences or hormonal differences (testosterone versus oestrogen) in men and women for why a disease might favour a woman over a man, or vice versa.

My current question is to identify some mediator that is making a woman more susceptible to dementia compared to a man.

In your opinion, why do you think your research is important?

I don’t think we need to look back too far to realise there has been a political inequality between men and women. We are constantly surprised by how deeply that ideology has laid its roots.

For the longest time in research, if a drug worked in men it was good enough for women! If you weren’t working with women you didn’t have to take into account how a drug could interact with changing hormone levels through the menstrual cycle, for example, or pregnancy.

This went on for way too long and we have a massive amount of information about how diseases and drugs work in men, but much less so in women.

Also, people exist beyond the gender binary. I believe that further research into this is most needed for many of those who don’t allocate themselves to their birth sex or those who are genetically neither XX or XY.

Those who undergo sex changes or hormonal replacement therapy are also included here. If we don’t know much about hormones in the female body with disease, imagine how little we know about disease in the body of someone who has pursued a hormonally driven transition, for example? We need to learn more about this to provide the best treatment for all people.

What commercial applications do you foresee for your research?

Medical research for less than half of the population has been prioritised over the rest. I think my research is an early stepping stone towards medicine becoming optimised for someone’s gender, age, family history and genetic build.

Eventually we will have medicine built for the needs of the individual with a disease, as opposed to a strategy that focuses on the disease in a male disease-carrying vessel.

What are some of the biggest challenges you face as a researcher in your field?

The youth of my field and the changing of old ways to new. Many of the most successful biologists in the world achieved highly with this old doctrine of male-dominated animal and human research. There is stiffness in transition, as there always is, but the outlook is good. There are few biologists left fighting against the movement towards gendered medicine.

Another challenge is more political. Many tiptoe around sex differences to avoid insult, like claiming that men and women are different is unprogressive.

We all deserve to be treated by society and each other equally. Medically, it may be in your favour to sometimes receive a different treatment than another person, one that works best for you.

Are there any common misconceptions about this area of research?

The misconception is that people don’t know just how many diseases affect men and women differently. I address it by telling as many people as I can!

FameLab is a great example of ways I can contribute to removing this misconception. Competitions teach you how to communicate and give you a medium to share your area and this area needs to be shared.

What are some of the areas of research you’d like to see tackled in the years ahead?

I would love to see diseases which affect millions of men and women differently have the root of its sex difference pulled to the surface and then see a sex-specific treatment strategy put in place. Whether it is in five years or 50, I would love to see that.

Are you a researcher with an interesting project to share? Let us know by emailing editorial@siliconrepublic.com with the subject line ‘Science Uncovered’.