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Barriers in Transgender Research
Author: Keila Turino Miranda, BSc Honours in Pharmacology, University of Alberta, Twitter: @keila_turino
The transgender community is a growing and underserved population estimated to reach over one million in the USA alone. In comparison to their cis-counterparts, where sex (biological attributes) and gender (socially constructed roles, behaviours, expressions and identities) align, transgender individuals experience gender dysphoria. Gender dysphoria is defined as a persistent feeling that an individual’s biological sex does not match their gender identity. As a result, transgender individuals experience severe distress, which significantly impairs their ability to function in society. This condition occurs on a spectrum, where transgender individuals are at the extreme end. This clinical diagnosis results in gender-affirming hormone therapy initiation, where feminization or masculinization goals are initiated. For transgender women, gender-affirming hormone therapy consists of the use of exogenous synthetic estrogens often in conjunction with anti-androgens to promote feminization (breast growth, decreased facial and body hair, genital atrophy, etc.) and minimize the effects of endogenous androgens like testosterone (deepening of the voice, differential distribution of body fat and muscle).
Protocols for Transgender Care
Estrogen gender-affirming hormone therapy formulation, dose, administration route, and co-administration with anti-androgens vary on individual goals for transitioning. Higher doses may be used for a more pronounced transitioning, while lower doses may be used if the individual is predisposed to other health complications. Additionally, the administration route may vary based on personal preference or recommendation by the health care practitioner. An example of this is seen in the preference for non-oral (transdermal patch, intravenous injection, etc.) estrogen gender-affirming hormone therapy over oral routes. This preference is a direct result of experimental data in cis-women showing that oral estrogen therapy, whether for contraceptive or postmenopausal use, is associated with an increased cardiovascular risk compared to non-oral estrogen. As a result, transgender women over the age of 45 or with a predisposition to cardiovascular disease are prescribed non-oral forms of estrogen to minimize risk. However, no current research suggests that this finding is also consistent or applicable to transgender women. Therefore, protocols for the care of transgender women have been modelled after research done in cis-women populations. However, this can become problematic as these two populations differ by biological attributes, societal pressures and other factors. Whether or not this is appropriate can only be determined through further research into gender-affirming hormone therapy routes of administration.
Current Research in the Transgender Field
Transgender women face healthcare disparities and have higher rates of substance use disorders, depression, anxiety and suicidality. Moreover, transgender women receiving gender-affirming hormone therapy are disproportionally affected by cardiovascular disease.[3,4] Despite the growing number of the transgender population and the increased prevalence of gender-affirming hormone therapy use, research outside of HIV prevalence is limited. A newly published study on HIV prevention reported the positive impact greater social support in discussing HIV-related issues has on HIV prevention knowledge. These results point to the growing body of thought regarding minority stress. Stigmatized minority groups, such as the transgender population, show chronically elevated levels of stress. In addition to the limited research seen in transgender health, there is a lack of acknowledgement of minority stress and its implications on disease progression.
Barriers in Transgender Research
As an up-and-coming field, transgender research is limited by its heterogeneity in terminology and study quality. Researchers in this field must often consider the variability and advancement of the use of transgender terminology in active avoidance of transphobia. For example, outdated terms such as she-male, cross-sex and trans-sexual are often seen in previous literature, and Alberta Health Services contraindicates its use. Additionally, systematic reviewers in the field must consider these terms to capture relevant transgender research adequately.
As previously discussed, there is great variability in gender-affirming hormone therapy dose, formulation and administration route. As a result, there is significant heterogeneity in available studies, which is a barrier for appropriate quantification of their effects on transgender health and disease progression. Route of gender-affirming hormone therapy administration is postulated as partly responsible for this as the pharmacokinetics (drug absorption, distribution, metabolism and excretion) and pharmacodynamics (drug action and mechanism) vary. Pharmacokinetics is an important consideration as oral and non-oral therapies are subjected to differential levels of metabolism, total systemic dose, excretion rates, and other variables, which affect their drug actions and mechanism (pharmacodynamics). These are vital considerations as drug interactions affect disease progression, and in long term cases, morbidity and mortality.
In addition to experimental group variability, there are also inappropriate control groups, thus serving as an additional barrier. The psychological benefits provided by gender-affirming hormone therapy renders the use of placebo groups unethical. Researchers are limited to recruiting transgender individuals who have not initiated gender-affirming hormone therapy in search of an appropriate control. Although it would be unlikely to recruit these individuals and abstain from therapy initiation throughout the study, this would provide an appropriate control group as these individuals would share the same gender-identity. Additionally, researchers may opt to use cis-men as a sex (biological attributes) control. With this, studies looking to compare morbidity and mortality of diseases would be better equipped to assess transgender health as it pertains to gender-affirming hormone therapy use.
Cross-sectional studies aiming to obtain estimates of disease incidence and prevalence are limited by the inadequate collection of gender identity information in clinics and national surveys. This further prevents accurate and up-to-date epidemiological analysis of transgender health and serves as a further barrier for researchers and clinicians looking to address this population's health adversities.
Listed research barriers should be addressed through appropriate stratification of gender-affirming hormone therapy by dose, formation, administration route, and use of anti-androgens. Additionally, the implementation of appropriate control groups, cis-men and/or transgender women without therapy, is essential for adequate quantification of disease progression, morbidity and mortality. These modifications, accompanied by large cohort studies with sufficient follow-up4, will allow for the advancement of clinical understandings and protocols. Lastly, practicing clinicians caring for transgender patients should appreciate gender-affirming hormone therapy's psychological benefits when considering the potential risks associated.
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