University of Utah scientists developed a new kind of “molecular condom” to protect women from AIDS in Africa and other impoverished areas. Before sex, women would insert a vaginal gel that turns semisolid in the presence of semen, trapping AIDS virus particles in a microscopic mesh so they can’t infect vaginal cells.
“The first step in the complicated process of HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) infection in a woman is the virus diffusing from semen to vaginal tissue. We want to stop that first step,” says Patrick Kiser, an associate professor of bioengineering at the University of Utah’s College of Engineering. “We have created the first vaginal gel designed to prevent movement of the AIDS virus. This is unique. There’s nothing like it.”
“We did it to develop technologies that can enable women to protect themselves against HIV without approval of their partner,” he adds. “This is important – particularly in resource-poor areas of the world like sub-Sahara Africa and south Asia where, in some age groups, as many as 60 percent of women already are infected with HIV. In these places, women often are not empowered to force their partners to wear a condom.”
A study testing the behavior of the new gel and showing how it traps AIDS-causing HIV particles will be published online later this week in the journal Advanced Functional Materials. Kiser is the senior author.
“Due to cultural and socioeconomic factors, women often are unable to negotiate the use of protection with their partner,” says Julie Jay, the study’s first author and a University of Utah doctoral candidate in pharmaceutics and pharmaceutical chemistry.
So the researchers developed a vaginal gel that a woman could insert a few hours before sex and “could detect the presence of semen and provide a protective barrier between the vaginal tissue and HIV,” Jay says. “We wanted to build a gel that would stop HIV from interacting with vaginal tissue.”
Kiser estimates that if all goes well, human tests of the gel would start in three to five years, and the gel would reach the market in several more years. He and Jay want to incorporate an antiviral drug into the gel so it both blocks HIV movement and prevents the virus from replicating.