Vaginal infections represent a significant health burden to women and, due to their recurrence, often bring loss of confidence and distress, with negative consequences on quality of life. Furthermore, societal stigma around these conditions prevents the normalisation of the discourse, putting women at risk of medical complications.
Alma project aims to develop a reusable, inexpensive, less invasive sensing platform for vaginal fluid analysis capable of detecting pH and lactic acid from vaginal secretions, and to gather data that can be stored and used to reconstruct an individual’s physiological profile over an extended period of time.
Conditions like candida vulvovaginitis and bacterial vaginosis are infections resulting of shifts in the microflora, where symbiotic, beneficial microbial species are overwhelmed by other commensal species, which, if left unchecked, lead to detrimental effects.
The project is exploring how low-cost technological solutions can help measure the microflora while also empowering women to become more familiar with their own bodies, develop the confidence to open a dialogue with specialists, and discuss their symptoms openly to break some of the taboos still attached to gynaecological health.
While currently at prototype stage, the project’s documentation has been released online by the multidisciplinary team of creators led by Giulia Tomasello, a designer focusing on women's healthcare, together with Tommaso Busolo, James Che and Michele Calabrese, all from the University of Cambridge.
Alma’s sensors are embedded in the folds of women's underwear and connected to a flexible circuit board, creating a fully integrated device designed for prolonged use. While the array of sensors has a limited lifetime as the enzymes in the lactate sensor tend to degrade, it has been designed to be easily removable and replaceable, reducing waste and cost. In fact, while previous models used photolithography, which is expensive and complex, the main improvement of Alma’s approach is to fabricate the electrode and conductive paths with aerosol jet printing. This method has been proven cheaper, quicker and more easily adaptable to different design requirements.
Alma won the Biomaker Spirit Award at the Cambridge Biomaker Challenge 2018 and Giulia Tomasello won Ars Electronica's STARTS Grand Prize for Artistic Exploration with her other project Future Flora.
The team at Alma also built a user-friendly mobile app designed to provide an nterface for the sensor which is sampling the fluid pH at regular intervals, and to send information via Bluetooth to the user's smartphone.