Designing a Tampon That Can Test for Cervical Cancer

A cute knit tampon case. Photo by Towe My (Creative Commons).  

Periods can be a serious pain in the uterus. But what if you could harness the power of your period to test for STDs and cancers? That’s what NextGen Jane founders Ridhi Tariyal and Stephen Gire hope to accomplish with a “smart” tampon they are currently developing. The business partners, who met while working in an infectious disease lab at Harvard University, realized that the blood and cells a tampon collects could be used to to diagnose health problems.

The tampons, which are currently under development, would test for biomarkers that provide information on fertility and help diagnose specific medical conditions, such as endometriosis and cervical cancer. The goal of the project is to empower people to take control of their health care through access to timely information about their bodies. Instead of making an appointment with a doctor and getting blood drawn, you could use the smart tampon to keep tabs on your own health every month.

“We had to come up with something that would allow women to find out about these conditions sooner than every year,” Tariyal said in an interview with Fast Company. “You can pick up a disease any time, and letting it sit there for a year until your next visit can have consequences downstream that you don’t want. The system has to change.”

Part of an infographic made by NextGen Jane.

Dr. Dawn Harbatkin, executive and medical director of Lyon-Martin Health Services, a San Francisco–based medical clinic that specializes in care for women, lesbians, and transgender people, thinks the project shows promise if it includes good patient education. “It’s a really empowering way for people to feel in control and do self-collecting at home,” says Harbatkin. “But there needs to be an educational program that goes with it. [It should state] who should be getting tests and what the tests mean.”

The NextGen Jane team must also consider several other factors if they plan to make the smart tampon accessible to more than privileged white women, who typically already have access to quality health care. Will the project be adapted for other languages and cultural backgrounds? Will the cost of the product be reasonable, and will the product be made available to homeless people and people living below the poverty line? And will cisgender women be the only people who benefit from this project? You’ll notice the use of the word “women” throughout this article; that’s because the NextGen Jane founders only discuss how their project will help women. But there are nonbinary and transgender people who get periods, and they may not be able to use tampons due to a variety of factors. As the NextGen Jane team tests their smart tampon and brings it to market, these are the kind of issues they’ll need to keep in mind to make their invention have the biggest impact.

“The product wouldn’t work for transgender men on hormones,” says Harbatkin. “They would not make the stuff [NextGen Jane is] collecting, and vaginal tissue atrophies [when a patient takes testosterone], so collecting samples is really uncomfortable. Folks who are gender nonbinary are already struggling with feelings about their genitals, so this might not be an appealing product for them. About half the folks we see are on the transmasculine side of things, and trying to get those folks in to get a pap smear is so hard because it’s so very uncomfortable both with the pap smear itself and having someone examine their genitals.”

To make this product accessible to as many people as possible, including cisgender women who don’t (or can’t) use tampons, Harbatkin recommends finding a collection tool that doesn’t require putting anything inside the body.

The NextGen Jane team is taking a break from media interviews until the fall so they can focus their full attention on clinical trials for the smart tampon, so they were unavailable to answer these questions about their project. When it debuts, hopefully the smart tampon will be a way to help save lives—and turn periods into a powerful source of personal data collection.

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by Mika Doyle
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Mika Doyle writes about gender, rape culture, trauma, sex and relationships. She’s a sexual assault survivor, yoga newbie and coffee addict. She’s also (not at all abnormally) obsessed with puppies. Follow her on twitter @mikadoyle.

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1 Comment Has Been Posted

That tampon case is crocheted

That tampon case is crocheted, not knit. It is very cute tho.

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