Sarah Mancoll was 22 years old when she noticed a bald spot on the back of her head. A dermatologist confirmed that it was alopecia aerata, an autoimmune disorder that causes hair loss.
Of 213 new drugs approved from 2003 to 2012, only five percent included any data from pregnant women.
She successfully treated the condition with corticosteroid shots for nearly 10 years. Then Mancoll and her husband began thinking about starting a family. Would the shots be safe for her while pregnant? For the fetus? What about breastfeeding?
Mancoll consulted her primary care physician, her dermatologist, even a pediatrician. Without clinical data, no one could give her a definitive answer, so she stopped treatment to be "on the safe side." By the time her son was born, she'd lost at least half her hair. She returned to her Washington, D.C., public policy job two months later entirely bald—and without either eyebrows or eyelashes.
After having two more children in quick succession, Mancoll recently resumed the shots but didn't forget her experience. Today, she is an advocate for including more pregnant and lactating women in clinical studies so they can have more information about therapies than she did.
"I live a very privileged life, and I'll do just fine with or without hair, but it's not just about me," Mancoll said. "It's about a huge population of women who are being disenfranchised…They're invisible."
About 4 million women give birth each year in the United States, and many face medical conditions, from hypertension and diabetes to psychiatric disorders. A 2011 study showed that most women reported taking at least one medication while pregnant between 1976 and 2008. But for decades, pregnant and lactating women have been largely excluded from clinical drug studies that rigorously test medications for safety and effectiveness.
An estimated 98 percent of government-approved drug treatments between 2000 and 2010 had insufficient data to determine risk to the fetus, and close to 75 percent had no human pregnancy data at all. All told, of 213 new pharmaceuticals approved from 2003 to 2012, only five percent included any data from pregnant women.
But recent developments suggest that could be changing. Amid widespread concerns about increased maternal mortality rates, women's health advocates, physicians, and researchers are sensing and encouraging a cultural shift toward protecting women through responsible research instead of from research.
"The question is not whether to do research with pregnant women, but how," Anne Drapkin Lyerly, professor and associate director of the Center for Bioethics at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, wrote last year in an op-ed. "These advances are essential. It is well past time—and it is morally imperative—for research to benefit pregnant women."
"In excluding pregnant women from drug trials to protect them from experimentation, we subject them to uncontrolled experimentation."
To that end, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists' Committee on Ethics acknowledged that research trials need to be better designed so they don't "inappropriately constrain the reproductive choices of study participants or unnecessarily exclude pregnant women." A federal task force also called for significantly expanded research and the removal of regulatory barriers that make it difficult for pregnant and lactating women to participate in research.
Several months ago, a government change to a regulation known as the Common Rule took effect, removing pregnant women as a "vulnerable population" in need of special protections -- a designation that had made it more difficult to enroll them in clinical drug studies. And just last week, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued new draft guidances for industry on when and how to include pregnant and lactating women in clinical trials.
Inclusion is better than the absence of data on their treatment, said Catherine Spong, former chair of the federal task force.
"It's a paradox," said Spong, professor of obstetrics and gynecology and chief of maternal fetal medicine at University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center. "There is a desire to protect women and fetuses from harm, which is translated to a reluctance to include them in research. By excluding them, the evidence for their care is limited."
Jacqueline Wolf, a professor of the history of medicine at Ohio University, agreed.
"In excluding pregnant women from drug trials to protect them from experimentation, we subject them to uncontrolled experimentation," she said. "We give them the medication without doing any research, and that's dangerous."
Women, of course, don't stop getting sick or having chronic medical conditions just because they are pregnant or breastfeeding, and conditions during pregnancy can affect a baby's health later in life. Evidence-based data is important for other reasons, too.
Pregnancy can dramatically change a woman's physiology, affecting how drugs act on her body and how her body acts or reacts to drugs. For instance, pregnant bodies can more quickly clear out medications such as glyburide, used during diabetes in pregnancy to stabilize high blood-sugar levels, which can be toxic to the fetus and harmful to women. That means a regular dose of the drug may not be enough to control blood sugar and prevent poor outcomes.
Pregnant patients also may be reluctant to take needed drugs for underlying conditions (and doctors may be hesitant to prescribe them), which in turn can cause more harm to the woman and fetus than had they been treated. For example, women who have severe asthma attacks while pregnant are at a higher risk of having low-birthweight babies, and pregnant women with uncontrolled diabetes in early pregnancy have more than four times the risk of birth defects.
Current clinical trials involving pregnant women are assessing treatments for obstructive sleep apnea, postpartum hemorrhage, lupus, and diabetes.
For Kate O'Brien, taking medication during her pregnancy was a matter of life and death. A freelance video producer who lives in New Jersey, O'Brien was diagnosed with tuberculosis in 2015 after she became pregnant with her second child, a boy. Even as she signed hospital consent forms, she had no idea if the treatment would harm him.
"It's a really awful experience," said O'Brien, who now is active with We are TB, an advocacy and support network. "All they had to tell me about the medication was just that women have been taking it for a really long time all over the world. That was the best they could do."
More and more doctors, researchers and women's health organizations and advocates are calling that unacceptable.
By indicating that filling current knowledge gaps is "a critical public health need," the FDA is signaling its support for advancing research with pregnant women, said Lyerly, also co-founder of the Second Wave Initiative, which promotes fair representation of the health interests of pregnant women in biomedical research and policies. "It's a very important shift."
Research with pregnant women can be done ethically, Lyerly said, whether by systematically collecting data from those already taking medications or enrolling pregnant women in studies of drugs or vaccines in development.
Current clinical trials involving pregnant women are assessing treatments for obstructive sleep apnea, postpartum hemorrhage, lupus, and diabetes. Notable trials in development target malaria and HIV prevention in pregnancy.
"It clearly is doable to do this research, and test trials are important to provide evidence for treatment," Spong said. "If we don't have that evidence, we aren't making the best educated decisions for women."
The Friday Five covers five stories in research that you may have missed this week. There are plenty of controversies and troubling ethical issues in science – and we get into many of them in our online magazine – but this news roundup focuses on scientific creativity and progress to give you a therapeutic dose of inspiration headed into the weekend.
Here are the promising studies covered in this week's Friday Five:
- Research on a "smart" bandage for wounds
- A breakthrough in fighting inflammation
- The pros and cons of a new drug for Alzheimer's
- Benefits of the Mediterranean diet - with a twist
- How to recycle a plastic that was un-recyclable
Sexually transmitted infections (STIs) are surging across the U.S. to 2.5 million cases in 2021 according to preliminary data from the CDC. A new prevention and treatment strategy now in clinical trials may provide a way to get a handle on them.
It's easy to overlook the soaring rates of gonorrhea, chlamydia, and syphilis because most of those infections have few or no symptoms and can be identified only through testing. But left untreated, they can lead to serious damage to nerves and tissue, resulting in infertility, blindness, and dementia. Infants developing in utero are particularly vulnerable.
Covid-19 played havoc with regular medical treatment and preventive care for many health problems, including STIs. After formal lockdowns ended, many people gradually became more socially engaged, with increases in sexual activity, and may have prioritized these activities over getting back in touch with their doctors.
A second blow to controlling STIs is that family planning clinics are closing left and right because of the Dobbs decision and legislation in many states that curtailed access to an abortion. Discussion has focused on abortion, but those same clinics also play a vital role in the diagnosis and treatment of STIs.
Routine public health is the neglected stepchild of medicine. It is called upon in times of crisis but as that crisis resolves, funding dries up. Labs have atrophied and personnel have been redirected to Covid, “so access to routine screening for STIs has been decimated,” says Jennifer Mahn, director of sexual and clinical health with the National Coalition of STD Directors.
A preview of what we likely are facing comes from Iowa. In 2017, the state legislature restricted funding to family health clinics in four counties, which closed their doors. A year later the statewide rate of gonorrhea skyrocketed from 83 to 153.7 cases per 100,000 people. “Iowa counties with clinic closures had a significantly larger increase,” according to a study published in JAMA. That scenario likely is playing out in countless other regions where access to sexual health care is shrinking; it will be many months before we have the data to know for sure.
A decades-old antibiotic finds a new purpose
Using drugs to protect against HIV, either as post exposure prophylaxis (PEP) or pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP), has proven to be quite successful. Researchers wondered if the same approach might be applied to other STIs. They focused on doxycycline, or doxy for short. One of the most commonly prescribed antibiotics in the U.S., it’s a member of the tetracycline family that has been on the market since 1967. It is so safe that it’s used to treat acne.
Two small studies using doxy suggested that it could work to prevent STIs. A handful of clinical trials by different researchers and funding sources set out to generate the additional evidence needed to prove their hypothesis and change the standard of care.
Senior researcher Victor Omollo, with the Kenya Medical Research Institute, noted, “These are prevention interventions that women can control on their own without having to seek or get consent from another person,” as is the case with condom use.
The first with results is the DoxyPEP study, conducted at two sexual health clinics in San Francisco and Seattle. It drew from a mix of transgender women and men who have sex with men, who had at least one diagnosed STI over the last year. The researchers divided the participants into two groups: one with people who were already HIV-positive and engaged in care, while the other group consisted of people who were on PrEP to prevent infection with HIV. For the active part of the study, a subset of the participants received doxy, and the rest of the participants did not.
The researchers intentionally chose to do the study in a population at the highest risk of having STIs, who were very health oriented, and “who were getting screened every three months or so as part of their PrEP program or their HIV care program,” says Connie Celum, a senior researcher at the University of Washington on the study.
Each member of the active group was given a supply of doxy and asked to take two pills within 72 hours of having sex where a condom was not used. The study was supposed to run for two years but, in May, it stopped halfway through, when a safety monitoring board looked at the data and recommended that it would be unethical to continue depriving the control group of the drug’s benefits.
Celum presented these preliminary results from the DoxyPEP study in July at the International AIDS Conference in Montreal. “We saw about a 56 percent reduction in gonorrhea, about 80 percent reduction in chlamydia and syphilis, so very significant reductions, and this is on a per quarter basis,” she told a later webinar.
In Kenya, another study is following a group of cisgender women who are taking the same two-pill regimen to prevent HIV, and the data from this research should become available in 2023. Senior researcher Victor Omollo, with the Kenya Medical Research Institute, noted that “these are prevention interventions that women can control on their own without having to seek or get consent from another person,” as is the case with condom use, another effective prevention tool.
Antibiotic resistance is a potentially big concern. About 25 percent of gonorrhea strains circulating in the U.S. are resistant to the tetracycline class of drugs, including doxy; rates are higher elsewhere. But resistance often is a matter of degree and can be overcome with a larger or longer dose of the drug, or perhaps with a switch to another drug or a two-drug combination.
Research has shown that an established bacterial infection is more difficult to treat because it is part of a biofilm, which can leave only a small portion or perhaps none of the cell surface exposed to a drug. But a new infection, even one where the bacteria is resistant to a drug, might still be vulnerable to that drug if it's used before the bacterial biofilm can be established. Preliminary data suggests that may be the case with doxyPEP and drug resistant gonorrhea; some but not all new drug resistant infections might be thwarted if they’re treated early enough.
“There are some tradeoffs” to these interventions, Celum says, and people may disagree on the cost of increased resistance balanced against the benefits of treating the STIs and reducing their spread within the community.
Resistance does not seem to be an issue yet for chlamydia and syphilis even though doxy has been a recommended treatment for decades, but a remaining question is whether broader use of doxy will directly worsen antibiotic resistance in gonorrhea, or promote it in other STIs. And how will it affect the gut microbiome?
In addition, Celum notes that we need to understand whether doxy will generate mutations in other bacteria that might contribute to drug resistance for gonorrhea, chlamydia or syphilis. The studies underway aim to provide data to answer these questions.
“There are some tradeoffs” to these interventions, Celum says, and people may disagree on the cost of increased resistance balanced against the benefits of treating the STIs and reducing their spread within the community. That might affect doctors' willingness to prescribe the drug.
Turning research into action
The CDC makes policy recommendations for prevention services such as taking doxy, requiring some and leaving others optional. Celum says the CDC will be reviewing information from her trial at a meeting in December, but probably will wait until that study is published before making recommendations, likely in 2023. The San Francisco Department of Public Health issued its own guidance on October 20th and anecdotally, some doctors around the country are beginning to issue prescriptions for doxy to select patients.
About half of new STIs occur in young people ages 15 to 24, a group that is least likely to regularly see a doctor. And sexual health remains a great taboo for many people who don't want such information on their health record for prying parents, employers or neighbors to find out.
“People will go out of their way and travel extensive distances just to avoid that,” says Mahn, the National Coalition director. “People identify locations where they feel safe, where they feel welcome, where they don't feel judged,” Mahn explains, such as community and family planning clinics. They understand those issues and have fees that vary depending on a person’s ability to pay.
Given that these clinics already are understaffed and underfunded, they will be hard pressed to expand services covering the labor intensive testing and monitoring of a doxyPEP regimen. Sexual health clinics don't even have a separate line item in the federal budget for health. That is something the National Association of STI Directors is pushing for in D.C.
DoxyPEP isn't a panacea, and it isn't for everyone. “We really want to try to reach that population who is most likely going to have an STI in the next year,” says Celum, “Because that's where you are going to have the biggest impact.”