Sex and the Lab: An Alcohol-Focused Commentary on the NIH Initiative to Balance Sex in Cell and Animal Studies

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Abstract

In May 2014, Dr. Francis Collins, the director of U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH), and Dr. Janine Clayton, the director of the U.S. National Institutes of Health Office of Research on Women's Health, published a commentary in the journal Nature announcing new policies to ensure that preclinical research funded by the NIH considers both males and females. While these policies are still developing, they have already generated great interest by the scientific community and triggered both criticism and applause. This review provides a description and interpretation of the NIH guidelines, and it traces the history that led to their implementation. As expected, this NIH initiative generated some anxiety in the scientific community. The use of female animals in the investigation of basic mechanisms is perceived to increase variability in the results, and the use of both sexes has been claimed to slow the pace of scientific discoveries and to increase the cost at a time characterized by declining research support. This review discusses issues related to the study of sex as a biological variable (SABV) in alcohol studies and provides examples of how researchers have successfully addressed some of them. A practical strategy is provided to include both sexes in biomedical research while maintaining control of the research direction. The inclusion of sex as an important biological variable in experimental design, analysis, and reporting of preclinical alcohol research is likely to lead to a better understanding of alcohol pharmacology and the development of alcohol use disorder, may promote drug discovery for new pharmacotherapies by increasing scientific rigor, and may provide clinical benefit to women's health. This review aims to promote the understanding of the NIH's SABV guidelines and to provide alcohol researchers with a theoretical and practical framework for working with both sexes in preclinical research.

Flow chart of a potential course of action when designing experiments that use both sexes. This figure emphasizes how the researcher retains the power to decide whether to investigate sex differences. After analyzing the results for sex differences, the investigator has the choice of using one or both sexes for future studies by providing a convincing rationale based on scientific findings, questions, and interests. The NIH SABV guidelines discourage the use of a given sex as the “default” model in research.

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