The Isala sisterhood: Let’s write history together 

Our Isala team is delighted with the increasing international interest in our Isala project and the co-creational approach that we have implemented in Isala to better understand the female microbiome.

Researchers from all over the world are contacting us to launch similar projects in their local neighborhood. And of course, this makes us proud of Isala! Thanks to our fantastic participants in Belgium, we have a unique dataset that allows the in-depth analysis of the female microbiome and how this knowledge can improve the quality of life of women, their partners and their children, but we hope that our data are not useful only for Belgium. It is exciting to see that Isala’s transparent communication has inspired researchers globally. An increasing number of international research teams is inspired by Isala and wishes to conduct their own related research, forming a sisterhood of citizen-science projects named after iconic women. Often the first contact is made by early-career researchers. So exciting! 😊 Thanks to their enthusiasm, Isala sisterhood projects are being launched in different continents, often in low-middle-income countries and remote areas that are undersampled in microbiome research. They adopt a bottom-up, co-creative approach whereby early-career researchers are often in a driving seat.

The Isala sisterhood aims to inspire research on women’s health and the microbiome all over the world, while simultaneously helping smaller labs in remote locations with capacity building. The sisterhood creates an ecosystem where research teams in various countries share their best practices. This includes wet lab and in silico research, but also communication tools, logistics, and much more. The sisterhood also facilitates international mobility of young researchers and ultimately provides support in closing the gender data gap. As such, the sisterhood is generating a global impact on women’s health through an ecosystem in which research teams in several countries adopt the principles of Citizen Science, Open Science and FAIR Data (Findable, Accessible, Interoperable and Reusable). These principles will ensure that the sisterhood expands in a sustainable way.

We would like to take you on a road trip to get to know our different sisters and their locations. Our Isala family really spans the globe, with motivated and passionate members in various corners of the world. The map below gives an overview of the current Isala sisters. In America, we have Laura in Peru, Lèa in Canada and efforts will be made to start sister projects in USA and Puerto Rico. In Europe, we have sisters in Switzerland (Marie), Spain (Manuela), France (Madeleine), and the United Kingdom (Florence). In Africa, our sisters are located in Cameroon (Leke), Nigeria (Dora), Morocco (Fatima), Uganda (Florence) and South Africa (Mary Malahlela). You might have noticed that one project even connects different continents. Indeed, Florence is a twin sister project where the UK team supports the research in Uganda.

Now, what do all of these places have in common? By launching each of these sister projects, we want to advance women’s health research, raise awareness on vaginal health and empower women to take their health into their own hands. Secondly, each of these projects is named in honor of an inspiring woman from the respective home country, ranging from the first female physician to an amazing research professor and beyond.

We are looking forward to better understand what a healthy microbiome is by mapping the female microbiome in self-reported healthy women (without vaginal symptoms) at these different places, similarly as what was done with Isala in Flanders, Belgium. Apart from that, each sister project has unique goals and is working on a separate women’s health topic, such as human papilloma virus and cervical cancer in Morocco (Fatima), and influence of diet in Spain (Manuela).  

Many low-middle-income countries face challenges in obtaining funding for such research initiatives. This is where our commitment to support them comes into play. We understand that conducting research can be financially daunting. High-tech analyses are needed to study the composition of the vaginal microbiome, and these advanced technologies come at a high cost. Our mission is to bridge this gap by supporting researchers in securing funding by together writing grant applications, thereby ensuring that the benefits of women’s health research extend to resource-constrained regions.

Overall, researchers of the Isala sisterhood also contribute to equitable partnerships and increase of representation of understudied populations.

The first official collaboration between three sisters and Isala is a project recently funded by the Swiss Network for International Studies (SNIS) in which the Laura, Leke, Isala, and Marie work in close collaboration. It is named “The impact of menstrual health management on the vaginal microbiome: Linking transdisciplinary health science and policy to improve safety and hygiene for the benefit of women’s health”. This collaboration interlinks fundamental biomedical research with social sciences methodologies to generate translationable research evidence on the impact of menstrual products on the vaginal microbiome, complemented with women’s views, perceptions, and concerns about menstrual health management. Hand in hand with international policymakers, local organizations and the private sector (for example: CLUE by BioWink, a femtech company, also an associated member of this project), the four sisters want to bring knowledge of the impact of menstrual products on the vaginal microbiome to the current agenda on menstrual health.

We have great ambitions. Isala wants to invite women to participate and to be self-confident to learn more about their own vaginal health. That’s why we are investing in science communication all over the world! You might remember our very first Isala symposium in Belgium where we bridged the gap between experts in the field, team members from all over the world, participants, advisory board members and so on. It was a wonderful opportunity to come together, really bridge physical distances that separate us and to strengthen the bonds of our global sisterhood. This example is now also being followed along the sisterhood with the Dora symposium being a huge success in Nigeria. But that’s not all. The sisterhood team also love writing about their adventures, near and far. You can read our team members blogposts here:  

  • Sandra’s blog on the Laura project 
  • Leila’s blog on the Fatima project 
  • Alison’s blog on the Florence project 
  • Josiane’s blog on the Leke project 
  • Dora team’s blog on the Dora project

The Marie team already has a dedicated website. Stay tuned for more updates because of course we hope to expand soon. We have a Memorandum of Understanding to facilitate joining our sisterhood. Are you interested? Please contact our team! 😊 #letsswab #letswritehistorytogether