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Life Sciences innovations in the LGBTQIA+ community

Rebecca Rich our consultant managing the role
Rebecca Rich our consultant managing the role
Posted: 30/06/2022

The life sciences industry is innovating solutions across healthcare worldwide and this pride month, we are looking at different ways the industry has been impactful to the LGBTQIA+ community. There have been several breakthroughs in the past 70 years that those working in life science have been actively transforming support and care for the community.

HIV prevention and treatment:

HIV remains to be a major public health issue, particularly within the LGBTQIA+ community; gay and bisexual men are at higher risk of HIV transmission and there was significant loss within the LGBTQIA+ community during the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the 80s. Since then, there have been huge advancements from the life sciences industry in improving the treatment and prevention of HIV.

In 2012, the FDA approved Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis (PrEP), a daily medication that helps prevent the spread of the disease by inhibiting the virus from entering cells and reproducing. There have also been many advancements in antiretroviral therapy which have greatly improved the quality of life for those living with HIV. The antiretroviral medication results in the viral load count being so low that it is undetectable in blood tests and is therefore untransmissible. There is still a stigma surrounding those living with HIV and the campaign Undetectable=Untransmissible (U=U) is working to increase awareness and education about the huge advancements in HIV treatment.

We have seen some amazing breakthroughs for an HIV cure within the past 30 years, most notable being “the Berlin patient", the first person to be “cured” of HIV. Timothy Ray Brown was diagnosed with HIV in 1995 and 11 years later, underwent treatment for leukaemia. During his treatment, Dr Huetter, a leading doctor in Berlin, had the idea of looking for a stem cell donor that carried a mutation of an HIV-related gene called CCR5. This mutated gene makes the blood cells effectively immune by blocking the attachment of HIV to the cell. Following a stem cell transplant, HIV was no longer found in Brown’s blood, a landmark discovery in the quest for a cure. Since then, others have been able to be cured of HIV with a similar stem cell therapy.

There has also been tremendous progress in the development of an HIV vaccine since the first US HIV vaccine trial by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Clinical Centre in 1987. There has been a great deal of research into the treatment and prevention of HIV and in 2022, the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease (NIAID) announced that an mRNA-based vaccine has begun its first human trials, which could potentially eradicate the spread of HIV.

3D printing for fertility

In the past decade, 3D printing has made some major breakthroughs in fertility within the LGBTQIA+ community. People going through hormonal therapy for an extended period of time can experience effects that impact their likelihood of becoming pregnant, such as the suppression of ovulation. Also, people who are born intersex, where they have a combination of both male and female genitalia, can experience difficulty with pregnancy.

Developments across life sciences from scientists and engineers, like Jemma Redmond, are helping these people who are impacted by fertility issues through solutions like 3D printing. Jemma Redmond was an award-winning scientist who co-founded a successful 3D bioprinting business called Ourrobotics in 2018. Redmond discovered she was intersex later in her life, which meant she was unable to conceive children. This was a core motivator in her research on developing 3D-printed organs in ways that made them accessible and affordable for everyone. Jemma passed away in August 2016, but her research into 3D bioprinting and developing a 3D printed uterus has helped revolutionise the industry and potential solutions for those struggling or unable to conceive.

Since then, there have been huge breakthroughs in the use of 3D bioprinting, including the creation of artificial ovaries. Back in 2017, scientists created an artificial ovary and implanted it into a sterile mouse, which then became pregnant and was able to give birth to a litter. The shows promise in the future development of 3D bioprinting in healthcare and will its impact on other issues impacting the LGBTQIA+ community.

Hormone replacement therapy (HRT):

Life sciences have had a significant impact on the transgender and non-binary communities, especially in revolutionising gender re-assignment. Many transgender men, women and gender nonbinary people seek hormone replacement therapy as part of their transition process. This can be a vital part of their transition due to its physical impacts and resulting influences on mental health. It's quite common for HRT to be offered to patients before committing to gender-affirming surgery as some people find sufficient relief from taking hormone medication, without invasive surgery.

Synthetic oestrogen first became available in 1938 but wasn’t used for transitional purposes until 1953 when Danish endocrinologist, Christian Hamburger, published the earliest known reports on hormone therapy. His patient, Christine Jorgensen, is often referred to as one of the first cases of gender reassignment in the US, where oestrogen-based medication was used as part of the successful transition. Testosterone became available in 1935 and was approved for medical use in 1939 and both hormones have continued to be developed and are used regularly in modern gender reassignment.

There are thousands of transgender men and women who are looking to transition, but have limited access to affordable HRT that is safe to use at home. As we learn more about gender identity and see an increase in people globally who identify as transgender, the demand for hormone replacement therapy (HRT) gets higher. High demand has caused shortages, leading to patients having to wait upwards of 5 years to receive the hormone drugs as the industry continues to adapt to the growing need.

HRT medication has saved many lives and helped transgender people suffering from gender dysphoria, which can affect their mental health. Gender dysmorphia is a sense of unease that a person may have because of a mismatch between their biological sex and their gender identity. HRT and gender-affirming medical surgery are commonly used to treat this and have shown to cause significant improvement in the quality of life of a transgender person.

More innovations to come…

These are a few instances where life sciences are helping to support the healthcare of the LGBTQIA+ community. Advancements in 3D printing, drug development and biotechnology are revolutionising the industry and helping us find more solutions and innovators across the world are working to make them more accessible and affordable.

One aspect that is empowering the development of these innovations is the increase in people from the LGBTQIA+ community working in and being represented within the life science sector and research studies. We see an increasing number of life science organisations promoting diversity and inclusion within the workplace and championing voices within the LGBTQIA+ community. Although there is much more to do, the more these organisations highlight diversity, the better understanding and inclusion there will be of the people within the community. This will also lead to an increase in awareness of issues impacting those within the LGBTQIA+ community and improve the representation of different members in the broad community within clinical trial data.

The LGBTQIA+ communities still face stigma and as more research and understanding goes into issues impacting these communities, it will be exciting to see how the life sciences industry can further its support and innovation.

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