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Potential new way for women to protect themselves against HIV infection

Tuesday, 12 August, 2014

Protection from HIV infection for women could be as simple as inserting a tampon shaped applicator minutes before having sex. Bio-engineers from the University of Washington have discovered a potential faster way to deliver drugs to protect women from HIV infection. This new method spins the drugs into silk-like fibers that quickly dissolve when in contact with moisture. This could potentially provide a more effective and discreet form of HIV protection, by inserting a drug-loaded applicator into the vagina before having sex.

The team from the University of Washington found that electrically spun cloth could be dissolved to release drugs, and that these electrically spun fiber materials can hold 10 times the concentration of medicine as anti-HIV gels currently under development. This would release higher doses of the drugs than current used methods such as vaginal gels or creams.

At present, some people who are considered high-risk for HIV infection are prescribed daily pills called pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) to protect against the virus. Advancements in this topical HIV protection method, in the form of films and gels, are just starting to be developed. These products need to be placed in the vagina before sexual intercourse, allowing for the drugs to be dissolved and diffuse into the surrounding tissue. These drugs, called microbicides, must be given in large doses minutes before sex to be effective.

These gels and films haven’t performed well in clinical trials because they are not easy to use. Drugs in film form take at least 15 minutes to fully dissolve in the body, and the volume of gels must be large enough to deliver a full dose but small enough to prevent leakage. This makes microbicides difficult for a woman to use before sex. Furthermore, the effectiveness of these drugs depends on high enough dosages and quick release.

The newly developed soft, dissolving fibers could be rolled into a tampon applicator for insertion, or be built into the shape of a vaginal ring, similar to those used for contraception. This fiber platform technology is thought to have the capability of being developed into multifunctional medical fabrics that would solve challenges related to biological efficacy and user preferences. Researchers are currently focusing on developing prototypes that can be tested for safety and efficacy in animal models.

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