women's body, health, yoga

Article provided by Lea Von Bidder, co-founder and President Ava Science, Inc.

As a woman and the co-founder of a femtech company, I can tell you that one of the biggest challenges and opportunities is the gender data gap. 

We are behind where we should be when it comes to understanding women’s health.

Historically, women haven’t been equally represented in clinical trials. In some cases, even drugs aimed at women are tested on men. (One now-infamous study into the alcohol-related side-effects of “female-viagra,” featured 23 male subjects and only two women.)

This discrepancy has been due to the fear that female subjects might be pregnant, but also because the hormonal fluctuations that occur throughout the menstrual cycle have been deemed “too complicated”—a variable that could confound results. It’s an absurd irony because those hormonal shifts are precisely what make us women—you know, the other 50 per cent of the population who would be using the drugs those studies were aimed at.

This bias isn’t just present in drug trials. Most of society’s decision making, from how seatbelts are designed to what we consider ambient room temperature, is determined with men as the primary test case, and women as the unmeasured variant.

On the surface, we don’t question that men and women are different. We have genetic discrepancies, a different hormonal make-up, and different average lifespans—yet research often fails to disaggregate data for sex and analyse it separately.

There’s a burgeoning movement to bring more awareness to women’s health issues, and it centers on breaking taboos around menstruation. In recent years, we’ve finally seen red liquid being poured onto a sanitary pad in advertising (in lieu of the clinical blue), stylish suppliers proudly promoting organic tampons, and a documentary about periods winning an Academy Award. At last, it’s okay to have a period and talk about it.

But that conversation is just the start of what it will take to demystify the female body. To me, menstruation is actually the least interesting part of the menstrual cycle, hormonally speaking. During the rest of the month, women undergo massive shifts in hormone levels with impacts throughout the body. But hardly anyone, from OBGYNs, to women’s health experts, to women themselves, is aware of these changes.

I believe that this knowledge should be fundamental for women and their healthcare providers. Where a woman happens to be in her menstrual cycle impacts her metabolism, sleep, athletic performance, response to certain medications, and, of course, whether she can get pregnant. Information with such broad and profound impacts should not be a mystery. And it doesn’t have to be.

When Pascal, Philipp, Peter and I founded Ava in 2014, it was with the mission to advance women’s reproductive health by bringing together artificial intelligence and clinical research. And I’m proud to share that we’ve just achieved a major milestone: Our clinical research has just been made public in a scientific paper published in the peer-reviewed Journal of Medical Internet Research. 

The paper demonstrates that five physiological signals change throughout the menstrual cycle, and that by tracking these signals, we can identify the fertile window of a woman’s cycle in real time. Our flagship product, the Ava fertility tracker, is the only fertility-tracking method available that measures all five of these signs.

With these published findings, we’ve broadened scientific understanding of the menstrual cycle by shedding light on its most central component: the fertile window. It’s rare for a digital health company to conduct its own clinical research and even rarer to reveal the secret sauce behind its technology. But bottom line is only one of our goals; expanding knowledge is another. There’s so much more uncharted ground to cover—and it spans a woman’s reproductive life, from puberty to menopause. Ava is already putting research efforts into some of those unknowns.

At the same time, we’re working to encourage the public discussion around the gender bias in scientific research, so we can take women’s health out of the shadowy domain of mystery and into the spotlight.