The first steps towards ‘living’ Isala drugs

Did you know that current vaginal probiotics often do not even contain bacteria that come from the vagina? How odd? That’s why we needed you. Yes, our research didn’t stop with mapping your vaginal microbiomes from the blue swabs. We also want to work on new ‘living’ medicines with good vaginal lactobacilli, to help women who have less of the good ones. That is exactly why we asked you to also send us a pink swab. 

Yes, the Isala team has been very busy. Next to determining the composition of your vaginal microbiome from the blue swabs, we also studied the pink swabs! With these swabs, we were able to keep vaginal micro-organisms alive during transport, before storing them in the big Isala freezer at -80°C. Why do we care, you wonder? Well, next to mapping the vaginal microbiome in Belgium, gathering good bacteria or potential probiotics or living medicines is also a big part of the Isala project!

Probiotics? What’s that again?
Living microorganisms that, when administered in adequate amounts, confer a health benefit to the host. So they are not only for your gut!

There is a reason why we want to start with bacteria that come from the vagina for new probiotics. First of all, these micro-organisms are most suited for life in the vagina. They use nutrients from vaginal fluid and produce in exchange a lot of other – hopefully useful – products or what we call metabolites. Kind of similar to us making saliva or sweat! Some also adhere themselves to the inside of the vagina. This all sounds more complex than it is really, but all micro-organisms in our vagina want to grow. In order to grow, they need food, just like we do. The metabolites they then produce can be used by us or other micro-organisms, and we hope that they mainly produce metabolites that are good for our vagina. Do you remember that we told you already that lactic acid is one of those metabolites that is made by vaginal lactobacilli?

And just like that, is having these vaginal micro-organisms very interesting. We can use these as probiotics that help us fight vaginal infection or irritations and can even influence pregnancy outcomes for the better. The road to such living medicines is unfortunately a long one with lots of clinical trials. Additionally, finding the ideal way to administer these is quit complex. How do we keep those lactobacilli alive and active until they finally arrive in the vagina?

What is growth medium?
This contains all compounds micro-organisms need to grow, just like we have to eat to survive. This differs between micro-organisms and it is, thus, very important to use the correct medium. For a lot of micro-organisms, we still haven’t found the ideal diet, making it currently very difficult or even impossible to grow them in the lab! We are also still looking at the best diet for our vaginal lactobacilli.

However, everything starts with growing as much vaginal lactobacilli as possible, so that we can find the best one. How does this work? After preserving the pink swabs, we made a first selection of swabs based on the extensive surveys. We selected the swabs of women with a vagina that was ‘as healthy as possible’. This meant that they should not have symptoms of vaginal infections or irritations while sampling, but also were not allowed to smoke or have taken antibiotics or even probiotics… Why? If these women are healthy and have no vaginal complaints, without any intervention, they should have pretty amazing bacteria, right? That’s how we grew the bacteria of these swabs on special growth media. In our lab we are specifically interested in lactobacilli since they are prevalent in the vagina (in Isala as well) and have good qualities (see the Isala results page). This, of course, does not mean that no other good bacteria are present in the vagina! Bifidobacterium for example, which is mostly present in the gut, was also identified in some Isala women and this bacterium is very important in the gut of babies!

After a lot of hard work, where I proudly attributed to during my master thesis, we now already have 450 Isala lactobacilli in our freezer. These were studied for their beneficial properties: we are amongst other things looking at the ones producing the most powerful natural antibiotics or antiviral substances, and the ones that can best  prevent infections.

Who knows, in a few years there might be an Isala probiotic commercially available! How cool would that be 😊

Who am I?

My name is Leonore Vander Donck and I am one of the women in science of the Isala team! In June 2021, I graduated as a bioscience engineer after completing my master’s thesis as part of the Isala project. In November, I received a scholarship of the FWO (Fund for Scientific Research in Belgium), which allowed me to continue to work on a sequel of Isala as a PhD student.

(Stay tuned for more 😉)