Vagina on a Chip

An no, we’re not talking about the unusually flavored potato chips introduced by a Lithuanian company last fall for “sex-starved Millennials”. (There is such a thing.)

There has been progress over the last several years to develop models of different organs that could be used to develop new treatments for various diseases.

By now, you may have heard of “organs on chips”: tiny devices about the size of a flash drive that are designed to mimic the biological activity of human organs. These glass chips contain living human cells within grooves that allow the passage of fluid, to either maintain or disrupt the cells’ function. So far, Ingber and his team at the Wyss Institute have developed more than 15 organ chip models, including chips that mimic the lung, intestinekidney, and bone marrow.

Harvard’s Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering(1)

The idea of a vagina chip grew out of research on early childhood diseases funded by the Gates Foundation. In particular, environmental enteric dysfunction is an intestinal disease most commonly found poorer nations and is the second leading cause of death in children under 5.

Further research showed that the child’s microbiome has a critical impact on progression of disease.

OK, what’s a microbiome?

Picture a bustling city on a weekday morning, the sidewalks flooded with people rushing to get to work or to appointments. Now imagine this at a microscopic level and you have an idea of what the microbiome looks like inside our bodies, consisting of trillions of microorganisms (also called microbiota or microbes) of thousands of different species. [1] These include not only bacteria but fungi, parasites, and viruses. In a healthy person, these “bugs” coexist peacefully, with the largest numbers found in the small and large intestines but also throughout the body. The microbiome is even labeled a supporting organ because it plays so many key roles in promoting the smooth daily operations of the human body.

Harvard University T. H. Chan School of Public Health(2)

In this case, the vagina has it’s own microbiome and any imbalances in that microbiome can have serious effects on both the mother and child.

Of particular interest is bacterial vaginosis, defined as an imbalance on the bacteria in the vagina. This condition affects an estimated 25% of women worldwide and is linked to premature birth, HIV, HPV persistence, and cervical cancer.

That in turn led to the creation of the vagina chip, a tiny laboratory for the development of treatments to heal the vaginal biome.

Why does the chip matter?

Simply, there have been no improvements in treatments of the vaginal biome since 1982. Animal studies have been impossible because no animal has anything comparable to the human vaginal biome.

The chip provides a way to test repurposing existing treatments for other diseases and developing new treatments and represents a major step forward for human reproductive care.

While it’s still at the level of basic rather than applied research, it’s a big deal.



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