Much has been written about the gut microbiome, the bacteria in our gut that is not only crucial to the health of our digestive system, but also our immune system and, in turn, even our mental health.
Now, research has turned to the microbiome in the female reproductive system – and the effect it can have on a woman's fertility – with a view to ultimately making IVF treatment more targeted and cost-effective.
The microbiome, which is the bacteria that exists in our body, is present in various combinations in the female reproductive tract – the vagina, cervix and endometrium.
A pilot study published in The Australian and New Zealand Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology has identified trends in the microbiome of the female reproductive tract in women experiencing infertility.
The study examined the reproductive tract microbiota in two groups of women – those with a history of infertility, who were undergoing IVF treatment, and those with a history of fertility. The study found that infertile women more often had the bacteria Ureaplasma in the vagina and Gardnerella in the cervix.
University of Technology Sydney molecular microbiologist, Dr Willa Huston (pictured right), says it is becoming well understood that the microbiome is critically linked to health and wellbeing – and women's health is no exception.
"This pilot study has provided meaningful insight in to the composition of the reproductive tract microbiome and its interplay with fertility," she says. "Our aim for the next piece of research is to obtain a detailed understanding of the microbes in the upper reproductive tract."
Dr Huston says her research team ultimately hoped to be able to establish the particular combination of microbes that would make fertility – and therefore pregnancy – more likely to occur.
She says this research is approaching a new frontier, for potentially tailored IVF treatment.
"We envision a future where we can test to make sure the microbiota of the reproductive tract is at the optimal composition for pregnancy," Dr Huston says.
"Ensuring embryos are planted when the reproductive tract microbiota is most likely to provide a supportive environment will increase successful uptake.
"Ultimately, it's about couples being able to make a choice to proceed or not with an IVF round, based on the best information available regarding the microbiome composition. We really are looking at a long-term approach to make IVF more targeted, and to alleviate the financial and emotional strain associated with the process."