The “good” bacteria in the vagina may help to prevent ovarian cancer

Lydia Brain, The Eve Appeal Ambassador

30th July 2019

New research funded by The Eve Appeal and EC Horizon 2020, led by Prof Martin Widschwendter and his team at UCL, has started to uncover the importance of vaginal bacteria in the development of ovarian cancer. The Eve Appeal is a UK charity focused on prevention and early diagnosis of all five of the gynaecological cancers.

The vagina naturally contains bacteria which create an acidic environment (i.e. a low pH). This pH not only keeps the vagina in a healthy state, but it prevents “bad” bacteria from travelling further up the gynaecological tract.

Existing evidence shows that when people contract infections from these ‘bad’ bacteria, they then travels further up the gynaecological tract. This infection can causes inflammation in the womb and Fallopian Tubes, which can lead to problems with fertility, premature labour, and now possibly cancer.

Prof Widschwendter and his team analysed cervical screening samples taken from women who had ovarian cancer, women who had a BRCA1 mutation (who have a 40x higher risk of developing ovarian cancer compared to the background population), and women not at increased risk of ovarian cancer.

The team analysed the genomes of the bacteria using Next Generation Sequencing and found, as expected, that the majority of bacteria in a woman’s vagina are of the type called ‘lactobacilli’. Women who had been diagnosed with ovarian cancer had much less lactobacilli in their vagina than women who had not been diagnosed.

The team also found that women with the BRCA1 gene mutation (at higher risk of developing ovarian cancer), also had much lower levels of these ‘good’ bacteria.

It now seems that vaginal ‘good’ bacteria, and the low pH it creates, may not only be important in keeping the vagina clean, but may also contribute towards preventing “bad” bacteria causing health problems, which could potentially lead to the development of ovarian cancer.

As with all cancers, there are multiple factors contributing towards ovarian cancer development, and the likelihood of any one woman being diagnosed with this disease. Prof Widschwendter’s research adds another piece to the jigsaw with respect to the probable causes of ovarian cancer, which may mean we will one day be able to more accurately predict a woman’s likelihood of developing ovarian cancer.

Prof Widschwendter and his team will now start to investigate whether the amount of ‘good’ bacteria is also reduced further up the gynaecological tract in the Fallopian Tubes, and if replacing ‘good’ bacteria in the vagina can lower a woman’s chance of developing ovarian cancer.

Thanks to this new research, in the not too distant future we might have exciting new ways of measuring the risk of ovarian cancer, and hopefully reducing this risk.

The Eve Appeal has a range of materials to help pick up the signs of symptoms of the five gynaecological cancers, as well as a guide for newly diagnosed womb cancer patients.