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Association between postmenopausal vulvovaginal discomfort, vaginal microbiota, and mucosal inflammation

Published:March 03, 2021DOI:https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ajog.2021.02.034

      Background

      Half of all postmenopausal women report symptoms of vulvar, vaginal, or urinary discomfort with substantial impact on sexual function and quality of life; underlying mechanisms leading to symptoms are poorly understood.

      Objective

      To examine the possibility that the vaginal microbiota and/or mucosal immune response contributes to the severity of bothersome vaginal symptoms, we conducted a substudy of samples from a randomized trial of vaginal treatment for genitourinary syndrome of menopause to compare these features between women whose symptoms improved and women whose symptoms did not improve.

      Study Design

      This is a secondary analysis of samples collected in a 12-week randomized trial of treatment with vaginal estradiol or moisturizer vs placebo for moderate-severe postmenopausal symptoms of vaginal discomfort. We randomly selected 20 women in each arm with ≥2-point decrease in most bothersome symptom severity (responders) and 20 matched controls with ≤1-point decrease (nonresponders). At 0, 4, and 12 weeks, we characterized vaginal microbiota (16S ribosomal RNA gene sequencing), vaginal fluid metabolites (broad-based metabolomic profiling), vaginal fluid–soluble immune markers (Meso Scale Discovery), pH, and vaginal maturation index. We compared responders with nonresponders at baseline and across all visits using linear mixed models to evaluate associations with microbiota, metabolites, and immune markers, incorporating visit and participant-specific random effects while controlling for treatment arm.

      Results

      Here, the mean age of women was 61 years (n=120), and most women (92%) were White. At enrollment, no significant differences were observed between responders and nonresponders in age, most bothersome symptom type or severity, microbiota composition or diversity, Lactobacillus dominance, metabolome, or immune markers. There was a significant decrease in diversity of the vaginal microbiota in both responders and nonresponders (P<.001) over 12 weeks. Although this change did not differ by responder status, diversity was associated with treatment arm: more women in the estradiol arm (63%) had Lactobacillus-dominant, lower diversity bacterial communities than women in the moisturizer (35%) or dual placebo (23%) arms (P=.001) at 12 weeks. The metabolome, vaginal maturation index, and measured immune markers were not associated with responder status over the 12 weeks but varied by treatment arm.

      Conclusion

      Postmenopausal vaginal symptom severity was not significantly associated with vaginal microbiota or mucosal inflammatory markers in this small study. Women receiving vaginal estradiol experienced greater abundance of lactobacilli and lower vaginal pH at end of treatment.

      Key words

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