This may be the greatest breakthrough in women’s health in decades.
It’s no secret the vast majority of us hate needles – I’m a grown adult woman and I still cringe every time my doctor announces she needs to check my ever-volatile iron levels – but what if there was a way of extracting blood without ever coming within fainting distance of a pathologist’s office?
Here’s a thought Harvard engineer Ridhi Tariyal hit upon: what about the blood roughly 50 per cent of the population throw away in our tampons every month? Enter one of the most significant scientific breakthroughs in the field of women’s health (and possibly greatest why-didn’t-I-think-of-that moments) in history: smart tampons.
“I was trying to develop a way for women to monitor their own fertility at home,” Tariyal told The New York Times.
“Those kinds of diagnostic tests require a lot of blood. So I was thinking about women and blood. When you put those words together, it becomes obvious. We have an opportunity every single month to collect blood from women, without needles.”
Knowing she was onto something huge, Tariyal quickly teamed up with business partner, Stephen Gire, to patent a method for capturing menstrual blood and utilizing it to test for reproductive health conditions including STIs.
So why’s it taken this long for someone to stumble across the fact we’re seriously underutilizing the humble tampon?
Simply put, it’s because – somewhat ironically – to date, the menstrual product industry has been largely dominated by men.
Women spent decades uncomfortably squirming about with brick-like pads awkwardly wedged inside our underwear before anyone made a change to the construction of the sanitary pad, and, of the roughly 200 tampon patents granted since 1976, a whopping three out of every four of the inventors behind them were – you guessed it – men. And it doesn’t take a genius to tell you that men aren’t the most equipped people to provide insight into what it’s like to have a period. Yet it’s been men who’ve ultimately determined the future of women’s menstrual and reproductive health advancements to date.
Which explains why it took Tariyal and Gire over a year to raise the capital for their project after dozens of failed meetings with funders showing off a 3D-printed prototype of a product designed to extract liquid from a tampon.
Though Tariyal initially came up with the idea of implanting a chip inside a tampon that could collect information from the wearer, she soon discovered through trial and error (and the advantage of being a menstruating woman herself) that the concept felt a little too much like something out of Frankenstein, and so decided the testing would need to take place outside of the body, in the comfort and privacy of a woman’s own bathroom, using a simple device designed to extract menstrual blood from the tampon for testing.
But taking a product to market centred around period blood proved to be more challenging than Tariyal and her associate, Gire, were prepared for.
“When you say that you’re going to build a company around menstrual blood, people think you’re joking,” Gire explained.
“Someone told us that the product would only help women, and women are only half the population — so what was the point?” Tariyal added.
It’s this same problematic style of thinking that’s led to worldwide outrage with male-dominated governments standing strong on the tampon tax, a five per cent Value Added Tax (VAT) on tampons and pads.
A recent study by researchers at Babson College underscored this issue, finding more than 90 per cent of partners in venture capital firms are male – a critical obstacle when you’re attempting to explain the selling points of a product that extracts blood from a tampon.
Thankfully, Tariyal and Gire eventually managed to impress executives at San Diego-based gene-sequencing equipment company, Illumina, after having another breakthrough: the duo realized the blood in a woman’s menstrual flow also contains cells shed by the ovaries and uterus which could provide critical insight into early warning signs of cancer and reproductive diseases such as endometriosis.
The current gold standard testing method for diagnosing endometriosis is laparoscopic surgery, an invasive and often painful procedure that requires hospital time and significant costs, and is consequently avoided by many women who continue to suffer in silence. If Tariyal and Gire’s diagnostic tampon device proves effective, it would not only allow much earlier detection, but could also save the estimated 176 million women worldwide who currently suffer from the condition from years of unnecessary anguish and expense.
The device could also be capable of detecting iron levels in women with deficiency issues, meaning my dreaded monthly visits to the pathology nurse could soon be a thing of the past.
Now in development under the business name NextGen Jane, Tariyal and Gire’s mission is ultimately to empower women to start discussing reproductive health with as much candour and openness as we do out FitBit steps.
“If you can do that with reproductive health and get it to the point where people talk about it at work or over cocktails, then it reduces the stigma,” Gire told the Harvard Gazette.
“We’re looking to start a revolution in women’s health,” Tariyal continued.
“And we’re betting on women being smart as hell, really savvy, and knowing how to manage this stuff.”
This may be the year of the period after all.
Comment: Would you use the smart tampon device? And are you shocked it’s taken this long to come about?