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Keywords:

  • action potential;
  • delayed rectifier potassium current;
  • men;
  • sex;
  • sex steroids;
  • Torsades de Pointes;
  • QT prolongation;
  • women

Abstract

A number of non-cardiovascular drugs have been withdrawn from clinical use due to unacceptable adverse cardiac side-effects involving drug-induced Torsades de Pointes (TdP) – a rare, life-threatening polymorphic ventricular tachycardia associated with prolongation of the action potential duration of ventricular myocytes and, hence, prolongation of the QT interval, of the electrocardiogram (ECG), which measures the total time for activation of the ventricles and their recovery to the resting state. Research has suggested that women are more prone to develop TdP than men during administration of medicines that share the potential to prolong the QT interval, with 65–75% of drug-induced TdP occurring in women.

Clinical and experimental studies show that female sex demonstrate differences in the electrocardiographic pattern of ventricular repolarization in human and other animal species and is associated with a longer rate-corrected QT (QTc) interval at baseline than males. Reports of a similar propensity towards drug-induced TdP in both premenopausal and postmenopausal women support factors in addition to those of female sex hormones eliciting sex-based differences in ventricular repolarization. However, conflicting evidence suggests sex hormones may have a role in increasing the susceptibility of women or ultimately reducing the susceptibility of men to TdP.

Cyclical variations in hormone levels during the menstrual cycle have been associated with an increased and reduced risk of TdP. In contradiction to this finding, the male sex hormone is thought to be beneficial. Modulation of the ventricular repolarization by testosterone may explain why the QTc interval shortens at puberty, and might account for the tendency towards an age-dependent reduction in the incidence of drug-induced TdP in men. Mechanisms underlying these differences are not fully understood but a case for the involvement of gonadal steroids is obviously strong.

Therefore, further non-clinical/clinical investigations ought to be a necessary step to elucidate any sex differences in cardiac repolarization characteristics, QT interval prolongation and susceptibility to cardiac arrhythmias. This may have implications for the development of the safest medicinal products and for the clinical management of cardiac arrhythmias.