Isala is making history
by mapping the vaginal microbiome of healthy women
for the very first time.
Isala is a citizen science project at the University of Antwerp, funded first by ERC (Grant Lacto-Be ID: 852600) and now also by FWO and other funding for follow-up projects. Isala’s ambitions are high. And important! For the first time in Belgium, and hopefully in other countries like Peru and Switzerland as well (Laura and Marie sisterhood projects), we want to get a better understanding of the female microbiome using state-of-the-art DNA technology. Say what?!
Well, your vagina is home to millions of bacteria that play a vital role in your health. They’re incredibly important when it comes to protecting you from infections, UTIs and STIs, and we think they probably play a major role in fertility and healthy pregnancies too. But… we don’t know for sure. Because until recently, scientific research was very much a man’s world and there wasn’t much interest in the typical microbiome of women. Isala wants to change that.
So back in March 2020, we launched a call to find 200 women in Belgium willing to take simple swabs from their vaginas, skin and saliva in the privacy of their own bathrooms. We were looking for 200 women and we found more than 6000. Wow!
Of these 6000 women, 4684 women provided personal data to Isala via large questionnaires and more than 3300 women also donated a set of vaginal swabs. We used these data and swabs to map the vaginal microbiome of women in Flanders and identified several influencing factors. In the meantime, we also invited almost 300 women to participate in the second research phase of Isala. Almost all these women took several swabs during two menstrual cycles, which gives us now more insight into the dynamics of the vaginal microbiome. In addition, they provided swabs of important intimate skin zones such as the area around the breasts, the groins and the mouth. Because the microbiome of women is more than just the collection of microbes in the vagina!
We’re keep on making history with all of those women!
Isala wants to break the taboo around vaginal health. That’s why all our research kits contain great conversation starters (also available online here). Use these cards as inspiration for interesting chats with friends and family, and find out how much there is to say about vaginal health.
You can also start a conversation online (here) by clicking on a question and adding your response. You can do it anonymously – your first name is fine. The Isala researchers will answer your question. This way, we can increase knowledge about the female microbiome and break the taboo together. That’s our dream at Isala. Feel free to add comments and ask questions – let’s start the conversation together!
In Belgium, 5528 women have already sent out a strong message by registering to take part in Isala. Will you help them make history and spread the message around the world?
The call to take part in our citizen science project spread very quickly. Women picked up on our message and actively helped to break the taboo surrounding female health. We want to give them the opportunity to contribute to groundbreaking research on women’s health.
Can you help us?
Isala Van Diest (1842-1916) was the first female doctor in Belgium. She had to study in Switzerland because women were not allowed to attend Belgian universities at that time, but she persisted. And she made history. Thanks to her, a Royal Decree was issued in 1884 that allowed women in Belgium to become doctors. We named our citizen science project after this inspiring woman because we too are ready to make history along with more than 5000 other women.
We know that there have been many amazing women like Isala around the world. In Peru, for example, Laura Rodríguez Dulanto (1872-1919) was the first woman to be admitted to a Peruvian university to study science and medicine at the same time! She went on to become the first female physician in Peru. We will study the vaginal microbiome in Peru’s Amazon and Coastal regions! We named this project Laura, after this inspiring Peruvian woman.
- Get to know Lactobacillus isalae: the first official Isala baby bacterium
- International recognition for Isala in a high-quality journal
- Isala at a festival: The big award ceremony in Linz!
- From sharks to menstrual pain, with Isala it’s all possible
- Meet Dora: our sister project for vaginal health in Nigeria
- The Isala sisterhood: Let’s write history together