According to researchers, carrying too few “good” vaginal bacteria may increase a woman’s risk of developing ovarian cancer and swabs could help detect this.
The team of researchers from the University College London hopes this finding could be helpful in identifying women who are at a higher risk of developing ovarian cancer, which currently has no screening test. However, they said that more research is needed to explore this.
The researchers explained that it is too soon to advise women a preventive dose of good bacteria.
Diagnosing ovarian cancer early can improve survival chances. However, its symptoms of abdominal bloating and discomfort are often mistaken for more common conditions – such as irritable bowel syndrome or menstrual cramps.
Unfortunately, many women go undiagnosed until ovarian cancer has already started to spread.
If your doctor suspects your symptoms could be due to ovarian cancer, you will be advised certain blood tests and scans.
The exact cause of ovarian cancer is idiopathic; however, certain factors increase the risk, such as age, a family history of ovarian/breast cancer, and obesity.
Now the researchers believe that bacteria living inside your bodies may also have a role to play.
The researchers said that there is scientific evidence that the bacterial community and other microbes inside our body, aka microbiome, can influence our overall wellbeing and health.
And one form of friendly bacteria that is important for vaginal health is lactobacillus. The researchers believe that these vaginal bacteria can stop other bad bacteria from residing and causing harm.
The study looked at 176 women with ovarian cancer, 109 with the genetic predisposition of ovarian cancer, and 295 with no known genetic risk. The women underwent examination and samples were taken using the same collection method that is used in cervical screening.
The researchers found that women under 50 years of age with ovarian cancer and had significantly high lactobacilli levels.
The findings of the study were published in the Lancet Oncology.
Helen Callard from Cancer Research UK said, “The microbiome is a really interesting area of research and we’re slowly putting pieces together about how our natural bacteria might affect our health. But when interpreting research like this, association doesn’t mean causation.”
Callard added, “There are several factors that could influence the risk of ovarian cancer, and different things that can affect the make-up of vaginal bacteria – and it’s not always easy to separate these elements. So we need to know how vaginal bacteria might directly affect the risk of developing ovarian cancer. Or whether it’s a different factor entirely.”
Alexandra Holden from Target Ovarian Cancer said, “Before women become concerned about the bacteria in their vagina, more research is required to better understand how the vaginal microbiome may contribute to ovarian cancer, and find better ways to detect the disease. In the meantime, it is crucial for women to be aware of the symptoms, and to visit the GP with any concerns.”
The researchers believe that good bacteria provide a protective barrier to other infections, preventing them from traveling up to the gynecological tract, including fallopian tubes and ovaries. “We do not yet know for sure whether low levels of the beneficial bacteria leads to an increased risk of ovarian cancer, but that is what we suspect,” said Prof. Martin Widschwendter. “It fits with other research. It’s been shown that women who use excessive vaginal hygiene products have lower levels of this bacterium too, and they are at increased risk of ovarian cancer.”