Organ Chip from Harvard Creates New Vaginal Care Opportunities

Breakthrough research from Harvard University shows promise in treating vaginal concerns like bacterial vaginosis. The new finding is a sign of more dedication to female needs in the healthcare industry.

Key takeaways:
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    Harvard’s new Organ Chip revolutionizes vaginal health research with groundbreaking discovery possibilities.
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    Bacterial Vaginosis remains a threat to nearly one-third of women in the U.S., with little questions answered.
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    Measures to keeping vagina healthy focuses on the basics; sanitation, clean clothes, and safe sex.

The new Organ Chip created at the Wyss Institute of Harvard University is also known as the "vagina-on-a-chip," which can re-create the human vagina’s microbiome. Disruptions of the vaginal microbiome can lead to bacterial vaginosis (BV), currently impacting 30% of reproductive-aged women in the world.

This discovery follows demands for increased funding in women’s health research after years of playing second-fiddle in the United States to men.

In 1977, the FDA Guidance General Considerations for the Clinical Evaluation of Drugs prohibited women of childhood bearing potential from Phase I and early Phase II clinical trials. That order was reversed in 1993, yet new studies conclude women are still behind their male counterparts.

A study from the Journal of Women’s Health in 2021 evaluated the underrepresentation of women in health studies, the minimization of their needs, and gender discrimination in research grants. The analysis surveyed the U.S. National Institute of Health (NIH) resources, finding most of its studies were dedicated to diseases affecting primarily men at the cost of those impacting women.

Despite this study, the most recent report from the NIH on women’s health completed in 2019 through 2020 displays spikes in various health initiatives for women. Productivity like the Vagina Chip discovery at Harvard is a step in positive new research for women.

What is the Vagina Chip?

Dr. Don Ingber is a bioengineer at Harvard, and one of the key individuals responsible for the development of the new vagina chip. It was constructed from vaginal cells donated by two women, to imitate how an actual vagina responds to different bacterial environments. The model sprouted within rubber chips smaller than half the size of a business card, creating channels responsive to up-and-down estrogen levels and bacteria.

The Vagina Chip was observed in reactions to bacteria associated with BV. Researchers noticed increased pH levels resulting in damaged vaginal epithelial cells, leading to increases of immune responses similar to patients containing BV.

Now, those at Harvard plan to use the Vagina Chip to test treatments for BV to find possible therapies that can move-on to clinical trials. Dr. Inger in a conversation with the Wyss Institute exclaimed the importance of this discovery for the future of women’s health.

“There is growing recognition that taking care of women’s health is critical for the health of all humans, but the creation of tools to study human female physiology is lagging,” Dr. Inger said. “We’re hopeful that this new preclinical model will drive the development of new treatments for BV as well as new insight into female reproductive health.”

Maintaining vaginal health

Discoveries like the emergence of the Vagina Chip increase knowledge of vaginal microbiomes and how to treat vaginal concerns like BV — the most common vaginal condition in women ages 15 to 44.

The cause of BV is unknown according to the CDC, but occurs in those in high levels of sexual activity. BV can be avoided by stopping sex, limiting sex partners, proper condom use during sex, and reducing douching.

Women who are pregnant are more likely to have a premature birth or low birth rate — meaning the baby is less than five pounds at birth. It is vital that pregnant women seek care when displaying symptoms of BV.

Lubricants containing the following are not recommended for sex:

  • Vaginal discharge colored white or gray.
  • Uneasy sensations in the vagina including itching and burning.
  • Fish-like odor, increasing in scent following intercourse.
  • Burning sensation during urination.
  • Itching along the perimeter of the vagina.

Moreland OB-GYN points to proper vaginal sanitization, safe sex, wearing clean underwear, and safety while shaving. Lubricants for sex may contain harmful substances that can negatively affect pH levels. However, consuming high-probiotic foods such as yogurt, cottage cheese, sourdough bread, and miso soup will lead to increased pH levels.

Lubricants containing the following are not recommended for sex:

  • Glycerin
  • Petroleum products
  • Parabens
  • Scents
  • Flavors
  • Non-natural oils
  • Dyes

As mentioned, the CDC does not display any preventive measures for BV. With studies like “vagina on a chip,” more research into the ins-and-outs of the vagina will increase vaginal health for women across the globe.

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