Nature Medicine | Spoonful of Medicine

NEWS FEATURE: The vagina catalogues

By Alison McCook

vaginacatalogues.jpgWhen Heather went on vacation last year at the same time that she was participating in an unusual research project, she knew the relatives she was sharing a room with might be curious about what she was sticking inside the hotel freezer. Rather than explaining, “I would say ‘just don’t touch this cup’,” recalls the 34-year-old health counselor from Baltimore. Thankfully, no one did.

Heather (not her real name) was one of 160 healthy, reproductive-age women who took part in a study that asked much more of its participants than the typical research project. The cup in Heather’s minibar freezer contained swabs she had collected from her vagina. Every morning for 10 weeks, she wiped the skin on the inside of her vagina using a sterile applicator with a tuft of fibers at the end, labeled and stored the specimens in the freezer, and answered several personal questions: Had she had sex that day? What kind of sex? Did she use lubricant? Had she worn a thong? Sometimes, sharing these intimate details gave her pause. “I’m thinking, ’who’s going to read this?’,” she says. “There are certain questions they asked that were very personal.”

Researchers assert that knowing such intimate details is essential to really teasing apart the root causes of vaginal disease. By linking lifestyle information with DNA data from the bacteria living in the female genital tract, scientists hope to better understand what drives the daily fluctuations in the bacterial communities living in the vagina—and, thus, what causes disease when the delicately balanced community composition goes out of whack.

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