Vistas June 1996

The Weaker Sex? If There is a Disaster--It's Men

Women are better equipped than men to survive a long-term natural disaster, says a UW anthropology professor who bases his research on a little-known, 140-year-old tragedy of the American West.

UW Professor Donald Grayson studied the fate of the Willie Handcart Company, a party of 429 Mormon immigrants who were trapped by early snowfall in the Rocky Mountains of Wyoming in 1856. In that party, 68 died before the rest were rescued and arrived in Salt Lake City.

Grayson found that the male mortality rate was almost three times that of females, confirming earlier work he did on the Donner Party that showed being female is a key in surviving long-term famine and cold. "Human biology determined who lived and who died," he says.

Females are better equipped against starvation because, on average, they have a higher proportion of body fat and, above age five, a lower basal metabolism, he explains. A higher proportion of that body fat is subcutaneous--an excellent insulator. Physical activity and differing sex roles were not factors in the higher death rate for men, he adds. While men were expected to do more labor, both sexes shared in pulling or pushing a handcart 1,300 miles from Iowa City, Iowa, to Salt Lake City.

New Hope for WaysTo Halt
and Reverse Breast, Ovarian Cancers

Biologists have found the first direct evidence suggesting that the gene known to cause hereditary forms of breast and ovarian cancers can also halt--and in some cases reverse--both diseases.

Two related studies by researchers at the UW and Vanderbilt University demonstrated that normal forms of a cancer-causing gene (BRCA1) may be as effective in suppressing development of breast and ovarian cancer as its mutant form is in causing the disease.

In one part of the study, five mice with tumors from human breast cancer cells were injected with a retrovirus containing the normal BRCA1 gene. Five other, identical mice were injected with a mutated version of the gene. Within 11 days, all five treated with the mutant gene died. In contrast, mice treated with the normal gene all lived at least 14 days, with an average life span of 24 days. Autopsies of these five showed that two had no remaining tumors at all and the other three had small tumors--only one of which may have killed the animal.

"This is the first proof that normal BRCA1 is a tumor suppresser and can inhibit the growth of tumors," says UW Medicine and Genetics Professor Mary-Claire King, one of the studies' authors. "These results are very promising, but we're still very early in the process."

Women at Greater Risk of Death
Following Heart Attack Treatment

An international team of researchers found that women treated for heart attack with blood clot-dissolving drugs have a considerably greater risk of death and serious complications compared to men, they reported in the March 13 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association.

The death rate was 11.3 percent for women and 5.5 percent for men, says Medicine Professor W. Douglas Weaver, who led the study involving more than 10,000 women and 30,000 men in hospitals in 15 countries. The higher risk of death could not be totally explained by the women's older age or other differences in risk.

Compared to men, women in the study also had about twice the risk of stroke, shock, congestive heart failure and serious bleeding following treatment for heart attack.

The researchers theorize that women's heart attack symptoms may be less severe and more confusing, causing delay in seeking and starting treatment. Women delayed a median of 18 minutes longer after the onset of symptoms before going to the hospital. "Women over age 50 need to take action and seek medical care if they develop unexplained chest pain," Weaver says. "It could be the biggest mistake of your life to wait."

Vistas is a quarterly column compiled by Columns Editor Tom Griffin that highlights recent research findings at the University of Washington.

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