Women's Health

Harvard scientists design tampon that uses period blood to test for STDs and cancer

 (Akushevich)

A tampon able to test to for STIs and cancer might be on the way, according to updates from NextGen Jane, a start-up focused on putting women’s health in their own hands, beginning with so-called “smart” tampons.

Development for a tampon that screens for diseases began when NextGen Jane founders Ridhi Tariyal and Stephen Gire met working in an infectious disease lab at Harvard and realized the blood and cells collected by menstrual products could be used to diagnose health problems. Their hope is that their tampon will not only test for biomarkers that help diagnose medical conditions like endometriosis, cervical cancer, and fertility, but empower those using the product to take control of their health, rather than relying on a doctor.

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“We had to come up with something that would allow women to find out about these conditions sooner than every year,” said Ridhi Tariual 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.”

Still, the tampons are ultimately just another gadget without proper information to go along with the in-your-own-hands diagnosis, a point 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.

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“It’s a really empowering way for people to feel in control and do self-collecting at home,” Dr. Harbatkin told Bitch Media. “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.”

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Also a concern: exactly who this will positively affect, and who might be left in the dark because of it. A smart tampon would almost certainly come with a steep price tag, making it just another way that wealthier women have better access to healthcare. With seemingly no plans to adapt the product to other languages and cultural backgrounds, the future here isn’t bright.

NextGen Jane has also addressed this project seemingly only to cisgender women, leaving yet another gap in solid healthcare and access to real help for all the nonbinary and transgender people who get periods.

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“The product wouldn’t work for transgender men on hormones,” Dr. Harbatkin said. “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.”

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Ultimately, the tampon is a solid idea that needs several, several tweaks. Taking control of your health is always a good thing, but a product that only gives that power to a select privileged few should never be seen as the only way to give power at all.