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Wednesday, 9 February, 2000, 19:03 GMT
Bacteria may be added to tampons
Tampons could soon be impregnated with bacteria
Women's sanitary products could be fortified with live bacteria to help reduce the risk of urinary tract and gynaecological infections, scientists have said.

Live bacteria are often added to dairy products such as yoghurt to aid digestion.

Now New Scientist magazine reports that Swedish scientists think the same approach could be applied to women's hygiene products such as tampons and panty liners.

They think such an approach could help to kill off bacteria that can cause infections of the urinary tract and vagina - some of which are suspected of causing premature births and of infecting newborn babies.

Eva Grahn Hakansson and her colleagues at the University of Umea in Sweden have discovered a strain of bacteria which they hope can be impregnated into such products to displace the harmful bugs.

The idea has been patented by SCA Hygiene Products of Gothenburg, a major supplier of sanitary products.

Company director Per Martinson said: "We are at a very early stage, doing basic research, and hoping it will be commercialised some time."

The bacteria in question is a previously unknown strain of Lactobacillus plantarum.

It was originally isolated from the vagina of a healthy pregnant woman.

In lab tests, Dr Hakansson and her colleagues demonstrated that the L. plantarum strain completely inhibits growth of several bacteria known to cause gynaecological and obstetric problems.

They include gut-dwelling bacteria such as Klebsiella species and Escherichia coli, which cause vaginal and urinary tract infections in women.

Serious infections

It also combats group B streptococci, which are notorious for causing serious infections in newborn babies as they pass through the vagina.

Staphylococci and yeasts such as Candida albicans, which causes thrush, were also kept at bay.

The new strain of L. plantarum does not affect harmless bacteria - such as other strains of lactobacilli - which normally dominate in the vagina.

The lactic and acetic acids these bacteria produce help to keep harmful bugs at bay.

In tests on female volunteers, the Umea team showed that L. plantarum is capable of colonising common sites of infection, such as the urethral opening and the perineum.

The patent also covers use of the bacterium in ointments, creams and lotions for treating gynaecological conditions.

The team found that products impregnated with L. plantarum have a shelf-life of up to a year.

However, these products will have to be validated by lengthy clinical trials before they can go on sale.

Dr Glenn Gibson, a food researcher at the University of Reading, is developing strains of Bifidobacterium bifidum which combat harmful gut bacteria.

He said: "I've never come across the use of probiotics in panties before, but nevertheless, these organisms are pretty good inhibitors of pathogens."

Dr Sally Hope, a GP in Oxford and chair of the primary care gynaecology group, said that women with infections such as thrush were already recommended by doctors to eat yoghurt containing live bacteria, and in some cases to insert yoghurt into the vagina.

She said: "The vagina naturally contains beneficial bacteria, but the problem with modern medicine is that antibiotics wipe out all bugs, good and bad."

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