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February 5, 2021: Understanding immune differences between the sexes for better personalized medicine

Friday, 05. February 2021

It has been increasingly proven that women and men suffer from diseases with different frequencies and different courses. Now, scientists at the University Medical Center Hamburg-Eppendorf (UKE) and the Bernhard Nocht Institute for Tropical Medicine (BNITM) are researching immunological gender differences so that in the future these can be taken into account in the run-up to patient treatment. The German Research Foundation (DFG) is funding the project of the research group "Gender differences in immune responses" with 4.5 million euros.

The research group, consisting of scientists from the fields of autoimmune diseases, infectiology and tumor research of the UKE, the BNITM and the Heinrich Pette Institute, Leibniz Institute for Experimental Virology (HPI), investigate the causes of gender-specific influences on immune diseases, infections and tumors.

"We are at the beginning of an exciting development that will allow us to respond to individual immunological processes in a much more differentiated way than before. The systematic inclusion of gender-specific factors could make an important contribution to new treatment strategies for infections and immune-mediated diseases in the future," explains Prof. Dr. Marcus Altfeld, HPI & UKE, who is leading the research alliance together with Prof. Dr. Hanna Lotter, BNITM.

"The particular interdisciplinary composition of the group, which combines findings on sex differences from both studies in humans and studies in animal models, makes it possible to capture direct hormonal influences on immune responses and their effects on disease processes," says Prof. Lotter, head of the Molecular Infection Immunology group at the BNITM.

Immune response depends on gender-specific influences

It is already known that women and men differ in their immune responses: For example, women develop a better defense against pathogens, which can lead to a faster fight against infections. Likewise, in contrast to the male sex, they develop a stronger immune response after vaccinations and show clearer immune reactions against some types of malignant tumors. However, this improved immune response also has disadvantages: for example, women suffer more from persistent inflammation and are more likely to develop autoimmune diseases.

Why women and men differ in these immune-mediated diseases and what biological mechanisms underlie this has not yet been comprehensively researched and is now being investigated by the research group. The team of researchers involved is investigating, among other things, whether conserved immunological processes are responsible for sex-specific differences and how sex hormones and genes of the X chromosome influence sex differences in immune responses.

Original UKE press release