Can a stick of gum improve a woman's chance of becoming pregnant? A team of 13 students from the University of Copenhagen is trying to find out. Their plan is to develop a chewing gum that accurately informs women when they are ovulating, and in doing so, improves their chances of becoming pregnant.
"The core of our technology is to put a yeast-based biosensor into a chewing gum that is capable of measuring estrogen, LH and progesterone, hormones that fluctuate over the course of women's menstrual cycles. The chewing gum changes colours according to how far along a woman is in her menstrual cycle, thus providing a good idea of when the best time to become pregnant is," explains Jonas Hansen, a Biology-Biotechnology graduate student at UCPH's Faculty of Science.
The researchers are also working on an app to help users decode the chewing gum's colour with ease.
The project began as the young research team's admission ticket to the unofficial world championships in synthetic biology for students, iGEM, held in Boston during October. The team excelled at iGEM, earning a gold medal and several fantastic nominations.
"All of the world's major universities were there, and as far as I know, it was the best ever Danish showing, one that we are immensely proud of," says Ojas Tulsyan, a graduate student of Biology-Biotechnology at the Faculty of Science.
Easier and more precise to chew than urinate
The idea sprang from the experience of one of the team member's sisters, who had experienced difficulty becoming pregnant. A study conducted by Rigshospitalet, Denmark's main teaching hospital, shows that 16-26 percent of women who want to have children experience problems in doing so.
"People not being able to have children is a major problem. At the same time, we liked the idea of developing a more user-friendly fertility test," says Jonas Hansen. Along with the rest of the team, Hansen has spent up to 40 hours a week on the project, atop his regular studies.
The ambition is for the gum to become a cheaper, easier and more precise alternative to current fertility measuring products.
"It's more convenient to chew a piece of gum than to urinate on a stick. The test can be taken regardless of where one is. We will also be able to measure ovulation more accurately. Our method measures three different hormones, as opposed to existing tests, which only measure one hormone associated with ovulation," says Jonas Hansen.
The researchers plan to make the chewing gum using biodegradable materials, so that the product does not become yet another source of global plastic pollution. In the long term, the researchers hope to make the chewing gum available in a variety of flavours and have it sold in supermarkets and as an over-the-counter pharmacy product. Though an initial prototype is ready, there remains a way to go before a final product is complete.
"Our greatest challenge for now is to optimize all of the gum components so that they interact properly. It should be able to be thoroughly chewed and still work as intended, time after time," says Ojas Tulsyan.