This article is part of a series highlighting recent research on reproductive health for National Women’s Health Week, which begins on Mother’s Day each year.
Menstrual blood is potentially just as effective as systemic blood for the diagnosis of several key diseases, according to an article by Stanford researchers published in the Journal of Clinical and Laboratory Medicine late last year.
Systemic blood, or blood which is typically taken from the veins, is commonly used to diagnose or monitor medical conditions. However, according to new research, menstrual blood can also be used to detect eight key biomarkers, including cholesterol and hemoglobin A1C, the latter of which is important in monitoring diabetes.
While further study is needed, the current research serves as an important “proof of concept” to support the potential of menstrual blood analysis as an alternative to typical blood draws.
Sara Naseri, a visiting scholar at the Stanford School of Medicine and one of the study’s co-authors, said this method of blood collection could be important for the early detection of a variety of ailments.
“Getting access to blood is still invasive, it requires medical assistance, it’s inconvenient,” she said. “There’s not a lot of people [who] will do that unless they have symptoms, at which point in time, you know, you’re already kind of too late.”
People with chronic illnesses such as diabetes, which require frequent monitoring to determine if a medication is working or if blood sugar levels are low, might also benefit from menstrual blood diagnostics.
“Diabetes due to basically underlying rates of obesity is really increasing,” said Paul Blumenthal, chief of the Stanford Gynecology Service and one of the article’s co-authors. “And there are any number of people, women especially who are diabetic and who need to know from time to time whether their sugar is in good control.”
He also sees potential for using menstrual blood in preventative healthcare. Some cancers, such as ovarian cancer, rarely cause symptoms in the early stages, meaning they often go undetected until the cancer is very advanced. Blumenthal speculated that in the future, healthcare providers might monitor certain biomarkers over time. If one deviates from the norm, it might be a reason to perform more definitive tests.
“Alright, so we find this [biomarker is] normal, normal normal, it just keeps going year after year after year,” Blumenthal said. “And then all of a sudden one year, we see that it’s jumped. Now, what is that? What does that mean? Is that the first indication that something is going on? And then we should look closely now because you might not have any symptoms, you might think everything is normal.”
He added that this concept is a “future assessment that we want to undertake to see whether this technology really can be used over the long term.”
The current research is limited in part by a small sample size and the method of collection. The study consisted of 20 participants and used menstrual cups from diva international inc. for the collection of blood. Some women declined to participate in the study because they were uncomfortable with menstrual cups. The article also states that “it is possible that blood sitting in the menstrual cup could become degraded if left too long before analysis.”
“To really utilize menstrual blood and make it a diagnostic[ly] valuable resource, we need to find a way to collect it in a way that keeps it stable and preserve it and enable us to do the analysis,” Naseri said.
She has devised a solution to the shortcomings of the menstrual cup by developing the Q-pad, a unique period product which allows for the collection of blood through a strip embedded in the pad.
She and her co-founder Soren Therkelsen have created a start-up called Qvin. While she says “it’s super early days for the company,” the startup’s website states that its goal is to “use period blood, an exclusively female source of blood and health data, to conduct the World’s largest study on female health and biology.” Though the product has not launched yet, the startup’s team hopes that people will be able to track their period and get health information from a mobile app after receiving their Q-pad.
“It’s not a waste product, it actually does contain a ton of information about women’s health, and hopefully we’ll be able to kind of utilize that in the future to enhance women’s health,” Naseri said.
Menstrual blood diagnostics also offer an opportunity for those who might be less likely to go into a doctor’s office due to the coronavirus pandemic.
“It would be a very easy way to monitor patients while we are trying to keep them out of the hospital,” Naseri said.
Blumenthal said this research fits in with a much “longer term trend, which we’d been seeing even before COVID. And that was just the whole concept of self-care.”
“Maybe COVID really pushed us in that direction,” he said. “But it was a push, we kind of needed anyway.”
“There’s so much that we can do with self-care that we haven’t been doing up till now but we could be doing,” he added.
Both Stanford researchers said that, despite the stigma surrounding it, menstrual blood is useful.
“Who would have thunk it, that menstrual blood is blood,” Blumenthal said. “Women in general need to know that it’s not a waste product. It actually has health value.”
“Menstrual blood is something that happens to every woman, every month! 50% of the world’s population! And we still look at it as something gross … let’s kind of remove that taboo,” Naseri added. “And hopefully this is one step in that direction of saying, look, this actually has a diagnostic value.”
Contact Emma Talley at emmat332 ‘at’ stanford.edu.