Menopause and Microbiomes
Tens of millions of bacteria live in women’s reproductive tracts. But until recently, scientists knew little about which bacteria make up these communities and how they influence women’s health.
Larry Forney, a Distinguished Professor of biological sciences and director of the Institute for Bioinformatics and Evolutionary Biology (IBEST) at the University of Idaho, is among the world’s leading experts on the vaginal microbiome. His work on the subject began in 1997, when he formed a research partnership with a multinational consumer products and services company, the name of which is proprietary.
Nearly two decades later, that partnership continues to flourish and produce research results that help enhance women’s health.
“We’ve developed a real collaboration where we talk about project ideas, the interpretation of data and joint publication of findings,” Forney says. “It’s a window into the applications of this basic research.”
Forney is dedicated to research that not only ensures products don’t harm women, but also investigates how the vaginal microbiome has evolved, how it differs among populations and individual women, how it prevents infection and how changes in it can cause pain and illness.
“It’s really an evolutionary biology question focused on how this host-microbe relationship developed over evolutionary time with an eye on understanding what’s normal for women and how various habits and practices affect the relationship, ” Forney says. “Every woman basically has repeated the experiment of developing these communities, and through our studies we’ve developed a reasonably good understanding of differences between groups of women.”
Forney’s most recent project was a study of menopausal women’s microbiomes – about which almost nothing was known.
Post-menopausal women have high rates of vaginal symptoms and urinary tract infections. An estimated 25 percent of women in this age group have atrophic vaginitis, an inflammatory condition which can cause pain, bleeding and other problems.
“As they start looking at an aging customer demographic, the company wants to know what bacteria are present in menopausal women, and how might they be managed to reduce the risk of disease, for example,” Forney says.
Forney says he’s been impressed with his partner company’s desire to base its product development efforts on scientific data, as well as its dedication to women’s health – a mission he shares.
Cultural dismissiveness often dissuades women from seeking medical help for vaginal symptoms, which can cause pain, quality-of-life issues and self-esteem issues, Forney says.
“I like to speak out about those issues while trying to do some work to understand what causes these things, which could lead to therapies or steps to take to prevent them.”