University of Pittsburgh

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Breakthroughs in the Making: Gender and the Immune System

Written by Peter Kusnic

For two years, Pitt researchers collected data on 1,136 men and 1,047 women from 28 hospitals nationwide to find that senior men treated for community-acquired pneumonia tended to be not only sicker than women upon admission, but also more likely to die within the year following hospitalization.

Lead researcher Derek Angus and coauthor Sachin Yende—both on the faculty in Pitt’s Department of Critical Care Medicine in the School of Medicine—found that the disparities in survival rates may be linked to dissimilar immune responses between men and women.

Yende speculates that men are more prone to engage in risky behaviors, like smoking, that weaken immune response. They also are more likely to have chronic health conditions like heart disease or cancer. Sex hormone levels, says Yende, differ between men and women, which also may explain disparate immune-responses. The complete answer will likely be found in genes, which not only determine one’s gender but also shape one’s biological capacity to fend off infection.

Although it is well known that women tend to outlive men, the study—which was conducted with a team of researchers from several Pitt departments— suggests that one avenue for future research may involve developing gender-specific treatments for fighting infection. Understanding how the two genders respond differently, says Yende, could narrow the gap in life expectancy between men and women.