Smart tampons could be the future of home diagnostics

Researchers are creating a tampon testing system that helps women monitor their own health and fertility.
Photo Credit: Ridhi Tariyal and Stephen Gire
Photo Credit: Ridhi Tariyal and Stephen Gire

A woman’s menstrual period is a dreaded time and a taboo topic of discussion even in academic circles. But Harvard-trained researcher Ridhi Tariyal sees menstruation as an opportunity to gain non-invasive access into women’s health. Alongside her business partner Stephen Gire, Tariyal launched NextGen Jane, a company that lets women “talk” to their bodies and at its core is a smart tampon system that can detect the warning signs of infection and other anomalies in menstrual blood.

According to the Harvard Gazette, NextGen Jane’s diagnostic technology is growing fast. After an uphill battle to secure funding from donors who, for the most part, were men who couldn’t understand the need for technology tailored to the testing of women’s menstrual blood. Tariyal was determined to see her project through after she was denied fertility testing at the age of 33, in part because her insurance company would not pay for the procedure unless she had tried and failed to conceive.

“It’s hard to understand what to do if you don’t have kids, and you’re still pursuing a career,” she told Harvard News. “There aren’t actually really clear guideposts. How should you make a decision about having a child? How should you make a decision about freezing your eggs? When? What information can anyone tell me [about] whether I should drop everything and have a kid now or wait two more years?”

She began to develop a method that would make information on reproductive health, sexually transmitted diseases, cancer, endometriosis and other anomalies accessible to women. Speaking to the New York Times, Tariyal said, “I was trying to develop a way for women to monitor their own fertility at home...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.”

The primary feature of the innovation is the privacy it provides, said Tariyal. “If you don’t have a clear-cut problem, doctors don’t really know what to do with you or what to tell you. I really thought women should have information that’s theirs — without going to a doctor and without having a random arbiter decide whether they were ready to have this data,” she was quoted as saying.

Now, Tariyal and Gire (who gained invaluable experience performing genomic analyses during the Ebola outbreak in Sierra Leone) are working to hone a system for extracting blood from a tampon, detecting key biomarkers, and expressing the results digitally. Clinical trials to detect endometriosis using donated samples is currently underway.