Sometime in the not-too-distant future, people worried about their fertility and reproductive health may be able to test for endometriosis, along with numerous other disorders, simply by sending a used tampon to a lab.
Endometriosis is a condition in which uterine tissue develops outside of the uterus, affecting an estimated one in 10 women, up to 40 percent of whom may become infertile. Due to a combination of factors, including a lack of awareness and a persistent inability to take women’s pain seriously, many people who suffer from endometriosis go untreated or undiagnosed. In recent years, celebrities Padma Lakshmi, Halsey, Lena Dunham, and others have opened up about their struggles with endometriosis to reduce the stigma and increase awareness of the condition. There is no known cause, or cure, for endometriosis.
In MIT Technology Review, writer Dayna Evans reports that NextGen Jane is attempting to create a technology that will screen period blood for endometriosis and other disorders, a process it has been developing since 2014. Entrepreneur Ridhi Tariyal launched the women’s health company with Stephen Gire, motivated in part by a doctor who refused to administer a blood test that would have helped her determine how many more years she might be able to get pregnant.
The technology is still at least two years away from clinical trials, but here’s how it works:
Tariyal ultimately hopes to use menstrual blood to screen not only for endometriosis but also for cervical cancer and various other disorders. NextGen Jane’s key patent, at the moment, is for a device that wrings blood out of tampons. I watched her manipulate it. She seals a container and twists the mechanism like a pepper shaker. It squeezes out the blood into a compartment below.
The device has yet to be approved by the US Food and Drug Administration, but Tariyal says a clinical trial is designed and ready to go. She says she needs to raise several million more dollars to run a trial on about 800 women that could establish the diagnostic efficacy of menstrual blood. It will take her about two years, she says—if she can raise the money.
Contrast that with how doctors currently diagnose the disorder, per the Review:
Surgeons diagnose endometriosis—an abnormal growth of endometrial tissue outside the uterus—by inserting a small camera into the pelvic cavity to look for endometrial cells in places other than the lining of the uterus, the only place they should normally grow. If wayward cells are found, the diseased tissue can often be removed on sight. But the average woman diagnosed with endometriosis has already had the disease for over a decade, which can mean years of excruciating pain.
“I wanted to think how to prevent this situation where I had a physician deciding whether or not I could have information about myself, that there’s already a pre-existing test for, and arbitrarily telling me no based on her judgement of whether I could do something useful with that information,” Tariyal told Forbes in 2017 about her negative experience with the doctor. While the product is still in development, and Tariyal, a woman of color, said she faces hurdles when pitching to skeptical white men, her motivation remains the same: “How could I make it so that this is a problem that no woman has to go through?”