The publicly funded National Healthcare System (NHS) in the United Kingdom has published reports of a new study in cancer research hinting at the possibility of the absence of ‘friendly’ vaginal bacteria serving as a factor for risk of ovarian cancer. The study was conducted by a team of researchers led by Professor Martin Widschwendter from the Department of Women’s Cancer at University College London and has been partially funded by the UK government’s Tampon Tax along with EU research grants and a UK charity called The Eve Appeal. The study was first published in The Lancet Oncology, which is peer-reviewed journal.
A certain type of ‘good’ and ‘friendly’ bacteria, known as lactobacillus, maintains the normal acidic levels in the vagina and helps eliminate other infection-causing microbes. If these microbes travel up the gynecologic tract, they can cause pelvic inflammatory diseases and also lead to infertility in severe cases. This bacteria was studied in a cluster of women and basic outcome suggests that women with ovarian cancer had 3 times lesser Lactobacilli in their vagina compared to women who had no signs of ovarian cancer or genetic risk. This cluster also had 109 women who were having the BRCA1 genes, the genes responsible for high-risk of inherited ovarian cancer and the same result was observed in this. While 295 women in the study had no genetic risk of ovarian cancer.
The age of the participants ranged between 18 to 87 years and all of them belonged to the European Union, including the UK. The study included dividing the women into two groups through cervical screen tests which studied the presence of bacteria in the vagina. A strong link between ovarian cancer and levels of lactobacilli was found in women under 40 and was relatively lesser in women under the age of 40. In all women above the age of 50, the bacteria was found to be significantly lesser naturally.
This hints that a swatch of Lactobacillus can be helpful in detecting ovarian cancer and the presence of BRCA1 genes. According to Helen Callard, from Cancer Research UK, though the findings are an initial stage of research into how microbiome, the presence of natural bacteria in the body affects overall well being, more research is needed to establish a direct link between cancer and microbes. There can be many factors that can lead to ovarian cancer including lifestyle, weight, genetic mutation, hormonal changes and age.
More research is needed to even establish that increasing the levels of this bacteria or changing the type of bacteria in vagina can lower the risk of ovarian cancer. Studying more women with ovarian cancer and the types of bacteria, both friendly and unfriendly, will lead to more significant results in early detection of ovarian cancer. The efforts are on-going and if substantial links can be established, women can get themselves tested to understand the chances of ovarian cancer among them and take more informed decisions.