“Your vaginal microbiome is the composition of the bacteria in your vagina,” explains microbiologist and researcher Sarah Ahannach from the University of Antwerp. A few years ago, that university started the Isala research into that microbiome in the context of female health. “From this we deduced that your vaginal microbiome is influenced by various factors, such as status, ethnicity, contraception, and so on.” But possibly even more interesting: “One of the factors with a major impact was sexual contact in the last 24 hours.”
The latter finding gave the starting signal for the GeneDoe subsidiary project. The main question of this research project is as follows: can microbiome research assist cases of sexual violence as additional biological evidence? “The problem with cases of sexual violence is that testimonies can contradict each other. Then it is difficult to find out what really happened. “We don’t necessarily want to use microbiome research to replace other evidence, but to help create a broader picture of what might have happened,” says Ahannach.
“In women who have had sexual contact in the last 24 hours, we saw that certain bacteria were present in the vagina at much higher levels than in women who had not had sex,” says the researcher. “We were able to find this out because people had to take vaginal samples before and after sexual contact. They then delivered them to us, along with their underpants.”
The disadvantage of this approach is that in real cases of sexual violence no sample was taken before sexual contact. But they are developing a solution for this at GeneDoe. “Based on large amounts of collected data, we are one machine learning tool which works with artificial intelligence (AI) to learn to recognize when someone has recently had sexual contact. Even when we do not have samples from before contact.”
Underpants from the next day appear to yield many more sperm traces than a vaginal sample from the next day.
Microbiologist Sarah Ahannach
This tool was already able to detect recent sexual contact with high accuracy. “We have already tested it on several studies and real samples of sexual violence research.” To further fine-tune the AI tool, the researchers are linking as much data as possible. “The more data the tool knows, the more certain we are of the findings that the system makes.”
“Another interesting finding that we stumbled upon by chance has to do with the underpants,” Ahannach continues. “The morning after sexual contact, the people in our study had to shower and wear new underpants. They had to deliver those underpants to us. Now those underwear from the next day appear to yield many more sperm traces than a vaginal sample from the next day.”
“The latter can be important in cases where victims no longer have their underwear from the day itself. If researchers were to ask them to wear new underwear and to hand them over later, that would also be useful. Moreover, it is much less invasive to hand over a pair of underwear than to ask a victim of sexual violence for a vaginal sample.”
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“However, we are not yet at the point where this science can be used in real cases. We are currently the only ones internationally working on this,” says Ahannach. Over the coming months, the researchers will publish their findings in a paper, which will first be widely read by scientists from all over the world. Only after this process could their findings be used effectively in real cases.
However, the problem that researchers like Ahannach often encounter is the lack of funding for these types of research projects. “We often first look at the possible outcome of an investigation. If no product is delivered, and therefore if it does not generate money, it is much more difficult to obtain resources for research. That is truly a shame.”
“We know that forensic investigation (trace investigation, ed.) is rather of social importance. Despite the fact that we do not deliver a product, it is necessary that this type of research can continue to be conducted.” In the long term, the researchers want to make their tool available free of charge to scientists all over the world. If they receive enough government resources to do this, it could make a world of difference in cases of sexual violence.
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