Isala, the sequel: longer & more than just vaginal microbiome

In recent months, with the help of a robot and six job students, we have extracted all the microbial DNA from the vaginal swabs of more than 3300 women, you, our so precious Isala participants. Then — after what we can only call a marathon lab work session – we read out the pieces of genetic code of the bacteria with a ‘sequencing’ device. For example, with the help of bioinformatics, we have used these codes to identify bacteria and discover the microbial composition of your vagina! Thanks to the extensive questionnaire you have completed, we can link that data to information about your health, lifestyle, eating habits, partners, etc. Also, plenty of new lactobacilli and other good bacteria are grown from the other swab (pink), which means that our biobank now almost contains 2000 novel isolates.

There was one important aspect that we hadn’t considered yet: the dynamics of the vaginal microbiome.

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Underwear as a promising source of information in sexual assault cases?

No means no

Great news! Besides the first, large-scale results showing the hard work of the Isala project, the daughter project GeneDoe has not stagnated.  As a master student in the biomedical sciences, I got the opportunity for the last year to work on this forensics project under the supervision of prof. Sarah Lebeer, prof Ronny Decorte and Sarah Ahannach. And so, take the first steps in research for microbiome analysis as additional evidence in sexual assault cases.

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Can the  microbiome aid research into sexual assault?

Neen is neen

Almost 13 rape reports per day were registered in Belgium in 2019. Jups, you read that right, more than a dozen !! Or simply 4,664 rapes in just 1 year! Even worse, this is just the tip of the iceberg. As experts agree, we are dealing with a so-called dark number. This means that the number of reports is only 10% of the total number of actual incidents. And suppose you think it is something far from your own life. You must know that according to the international human rights organization Amnesty in Belgium, 1 in 5 women have been raped. That makes me silent for a moment…

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Diverse inside and out: vaginal microbes differ with ethnicity?

Every time I read about a study on the microbiota composition, whether it is from the gut, skin, or vagina, I wonder with which bacteria I am sharing my body with?. As a Peruvian researcher living in Belgium and now being involved in the Isala project, I also wonder about my vaginal microbiota composition and the ones from women like me: women with non-Belgian ethnicity but living in Belgium for several years. Perhaps our vaginal microbiota has changed over time and became similar to women of Belgian ethnicity? Or our ethnic background is “resisting” the possible Belgian environmental influence? 

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 What do underpants and face masks have in common?


Do you ever consider from which material your underwear is made of? I honestly don’t. But the great thing about our Isala project is that we get a lot of inspiration from our participants and social media. For example, we were contacted by Lore Janssens from Oh Yaz, a sustainable clothing brand that wants to empower women. She is convinced that we pay too little attention to our underwear material. She started an impressive search for the ideal substances for people and nature. And who knows, maybe we can search together for substances that are also ideal for your microbiome. That is why we asked in our most recent questionnaire if you could also give your underpants’ material. 

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