The latest glimmer of hope in the ongoing race to cure AIDS comes from an experimental new gel.
Researchers announced this week that a vaginal gel helps protect monkeys–and, potentially, women–against HIV infection, even when it is applied as long as three hours after sexual intercourse.
“If you’re having sex that’s in any way not anticipated, you might not have an opportunity to apply the microbicide before the sex happens,” said Rowena Johnston, vice president of research for amfAR, the Foundation for AIDS Research.
“In the heat of the moment, you might not always have time to say ‘Stop, put everything on hold while I put this product in.’”
While its findings are encouraging, say experts, the study did not show 100 percent protection. One of six tested macaque monkeys became infected despite the gel. Also, one out of three monkeys became infected despite having had the gel applied a half-hour before HIV exposure.
The gel contains the antiretroviral drug raltegravir, which is already authorized by the Food and Drug Administration for treatment of HIV. Raltegravir stops the virus from infecting the cells.
As NBC News reports, studies have shown that “so-called microbicide gels or creams” can work. In 2010, researchers reported on tenofovir, a different HIV drug that reduced a woman’s risk of infection by 50 percent after one year of use and 39 percent after 2 and a half years.
This new gel holds particular significance for women in instances of domestic violence or rape, because they could apply the gel secretively after a partner fell asleep or a clinic could administer it after a rape, The New York Times notes.
“You can imagine this to be a useful product to have, if it were something you could buy over the counter and have at home just in case,” Johnston said.
But the study’s lead author Walid Heneine told Health Day News that researchers are a few years away from human clinic trials because they are working on improving the gel’s effectiveness. Plus, success in animal trials does not always guarantee success in humans.
If the procedure works in humans, “it could be used for HIV prevention like Plan B or the morning-after pill for contraception,” said Sharon L. Hillier, a professor of obstetrics at the University of Pittsburgh and a leader of human trials of vaginal microbicides.
This discovery comes on the tail of two more recent, encouraging developments in the fight against AIDS: (1) a second American HIV-born baby appears to have been cured by high doses of three antiretroviral drugs right after birth, and (2) two separate trials revealed that injections of slow-release HIV drugs protected monkeys for weeks.