New “Molecular Condom” Targets HIV in Africa

August 17, 2009 11:30 AM
by Shannon Firth
A unique polymer gel could help prevent the spread of HIV. The technology, still in development, was designed specifically to help women in areas where condom use is fairly low, such as sub-Saharan Africa.

Technology to Empower Women

Research has shown that women in rural areas and less educated communities, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa, cannot depend on their partners to wear condoms, reported the Journal of Populations Research. The resistance to condoms is part of the reason why HIV is such a tremendous problem in the region.

For the last 10 years, scientists and researchers have designed various gels to help women protect themselves from HIV. Most failed in clinical trials. However, a new gel, designed by scientists at the University of Utah, is showing promise. The gel functions by responding to raised pH levels, which occur in the presence of semen. Higher pH levels cause gel molecules to join together "form[ing] a tight mesh," reported Technology Review.

Patrick Kiser, an associate professor of bioengineering at the University of Utah, called the new gel “unique” and “important,” adding, “[P]articularly in resource-poor areas of the world like sub-Sahara Africa and south Asia in some age groups, as many as 60 percent of women already are infected with HIV.”

A study published in Advanced Functional Materials demonstrated that the gel safely trapped HIV molecules in tests of human vaginal cells. Future tests will assess whether the gel can stop infection in cells taken from women who have undergone hysterectomies, reported Technology Review.

Both Kiser and Julie Jay, a University of Utah doctoral candidate, hope to integrate an antiviral drug with the gel to prevent not only movement of the virus but also replication, notes Science Daily.

Ian McGowan, a physician and scientist at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center who was not a part of the study, told Technology Review that one challenge for scientists will be to demonstrate that the gel can respond to “different chemical conditions” as pH levels may fluctuate post-intercourse.

Related Topic: Encouraging condom use in sub-Saharan Africa

According to the Journal of Population Research, “the least-educated have consistently been found to be the least likely to use a condom for both non-marital and all partners, including in Cameroon, Tanzania and Zambia.”

In the early ’90s, female condoms were approved by the Food and Drug Administration and then distributed abroad. Despite being promoted by the United Nations and AIDS groups, they weren’t well received. According to the Associated Press, one reason is that male condoms are “far cheaper and, at least initially, easier to use.”

In April, the FDA approved the FC2, a new version of the female condom. The FC2 is made of rubber instead of polyurethane and is one-third the cost.

According to the AP, women in Zimbabwe lobbied for access to the female condom and women in Ghana participated in programs to learn how properly use the condom—reportedly more difficult than male condoms—as well as “how to negotiate with their male partners.”

“The mindset is changing, but there are still a lot of challenges,” Bidia Deperthes, the HIV technical advisor for the Population Fund, told AP. “Accessibility is still minimal. There’s a huge demand, and we’re not meeting it.”

NEXT: Clinton Urges Congolese To Advocate for Rape Victims >

Reference: HIV/AIDS Web Guide


Most Recent Beyond The Headlines