Vive La Difference, and Other Ways It May Not Be Good

If you're a certain age you know the expression, "Vive la difference!"  And if you're not, it means, well, thank goodness for boys and girls, and all their differences.

But now scientists are finding that the incongruities between the sexes are even more dramatic than anyone knew.

We're talking cells, sex cells.  Not sex sells, but sex cells.  You know, the things researchers use to figure out how to cure diseases and find therapies for different illnesses.  

"There is now good reason to consider that studies conducted in male cells will produce results different from those of identical studies using female cell lines," Cathy Fuller, Ph.D., associate professor in the Department of Cell, Developmental and Integrative Biology at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, tells "This could have a profound effect on fields such as personalized medicine.”

Not long ago, the world learned that medications have different effects on men than on women, and it's a problem because most meds have only ever been tested on men.  BioScience Technology reports that widely used treatments for type 2 diabetes have different effects on the hearts of men and women, even as the drugs control blood sugar equally well in both sexes, according to researchers at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis.

But back to the cells. “We have assumed that cells bearing an XY (male) genotype behave the same as cells that are XX (female), but we don’t really know if that is correct,” said Fuller at “Do cells, derived from a male colon cancer patient, behave the same as colon cancer cells, derived from a female? And will a colon cancer drug tested in one cell line work in the same fashion in all patients?”

The answers, researchers are coming to know, is, not always. And this could have profound effects on how medications and treatments are developed for each sex.

Fuller adds, "“As we move closer to the concept of personalized medicine, where drugs and therapies can be tailored for the individual patient, we will need a more complete understanding of the physiology of that patient down to the cellular level. A drug that was tested in a cell line without a Y chromosome might not work as well in a patient who does have Y chromosomes. This could help explain why certain drugs work better in some patients than in others.”

Sex differences may underlie differences in responsiveness of different cells used in drug discovery trials, as well as considering the sex of the patient group to whom the drugs are targeted. "Sex differences will be particularly important in stem cell-based therapies, such that the sex of both the donor and the recipient should be considered," she tells

The good news is that the sex of many of the major cell lines currently in use is known and that information is available to researchers, according to Fuller. So the next time you think sex doesn't matter, it does.


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