It's estimated that 3,000 women around the world are infected with HIV every day and a majority of those cases are in Sub-Saharan Africa. But now, Gita Shankar, Ph.D., and her team at SRI International in Menlo Park are developing a gel that they believe will cut those numbers dramatically.
"It's a two-part gel. When applied to the site, it will stick for such a long time at the same time delivering two drugs, which in our case, one effective against HIV, the other effective against HSV," said Shankar.
The idea is to protect women during intercourse from both HIV and HSV-2, a form of genital herpes also rampant in Africa. She says the gel would be an effective alternative in male-dominated cultures that sometimes discourage the use of condoms.
"Therefore you want to empower the women, give them something, an ability to take care of their health, take charge to their own health," said Shankar.
The project recently received a boost from the National Institutes of Health. In July, it awarded SRI a $500,000 grant to fund their research for two years.
Immunologist Carsten Alt, Ph.D., believes the combination therapy could be particularly effective, because HSV-2 infections often leave women more vulnerable to contracting HIV.
"So if you can reduce one, you also reduce the other," said Alt.
In fact, statistical studies have suggested that if the microbicide gel were used by even a fraction of women having unprotected sex in the developing world, it could prevent hundreds of thousands of HIV infections per year. And since the gel employs established anti-viral drugs, the team hopes to speed the approval process.
"We are quickly hoping that in the next two years we can take this product to a stage where we can get down there and say we're going to start clinical trials, hopefully in Africa in a few years," said Shankar.
Researchers are hoping the final version of the gel will last for eight hours once it's applied.
Written and produced by Tim Didion