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Yi Shi and Xia Zhou work with a DNA sequencer.

The Shanghai Connection

Balancing Bacteria and Birth Control Benefits

When Yi Shi needed the most advanced laboratory techniques to study bacteria samples from patients in Shanghai, she scoured the internet for the best in the world. Her search brought her to the laboratory of Larry Forney at the University of Idaho.

Shi, a graduate student at the Shanghai Jiao Tong University School of Medicine, the largest hospital in Shanghai, was curious as to whether or not a popular contraceptive in China affected the vagina’s natural bacterial defenses. As it turned out, she wasn’t the only one who thought this question was well worth asking.

“We were kind of stunned by the fact that nobody really has bothered to look at this question very carefully,” says Forney, professor of biology at the University of Idaho. “Shi is one of the very first people to use advanced molecular technology to address this question.”

Shi e-mailed Forney asking for information about the lab’s analysis techniques. Instead of the long and cumbersome task of communicating across the Pacific, Forney put Shi in contact with Xia Zhou, a research scientist in Forney’s Moscow-based lab for the past seven years who previously practiced as a physician in China for 13 years. After several phone conversations, and a visit to Shanghai for both Forney and Zhou, the collaboration was born.

Shi’s research focuses on the bacteria naturally present in a woman’s vagina and whether the implantation of an intrauterine device (IUD) disrupts the delicate ecological balance that exists. The results could provide insight into the controversial view that IUDs increase risk of disease, including those that are sexually transmitted.

The study especially is relevant in China, where low incomes and China’s one child law results in many women seeking effective methods of birth control. Indeed, IUDs are the world's most widely used method of reversible birth control. Nearly 160 million women use them worldwide, most living in developing countries.

While obtaining samples was easy enough for Shi, analyzing them was not. While looking for the best facilities and practices to use for analysis, Shi came across Forney’s Web site.

“Our laboratories do these kinds of analysis routinely,” says Forney. “It’s fair to say that we’re one of the leading laboratories in the world in this area of study.”

“I’ve been very surprised by the results,” says Shi, who expected to see a clear indication whether the IUD implant affected the bacteria or not. “It seems that some women are affected a great deal, while others aren’t at all. Of the women who are affected, some return to normal after a few weeks and others don’t. It will require more research to find out why.”

Shi returned to the Shanghai Jiao Tong University in late September to begin a position in an Ears, Nose and Throat clinic at another hospital in Shanghai, but both Forney and Shi believes this project is just the beginning of a very productive relationship between the University of Idaho and Shanghai Jiao Tong University looking at a number of different problems associated with women’s’ reproductive health.

Learn more about Forney’s research laboratory online.