Condoms have saved millions of lives, but scientists say we can do better

Until now, the only way to protect ourselves against HIV and unintended pregnancy is the condom.
Although the condom has been an effective technology, a new technology has taken the scientific effort to finding solution to HIV/AIDS pandemic to new heights.
A team of scientists from the University of Washington (UW) has recently discovered a new possible material as contraceptive and sexually transmitted infection protection that dissolves within the body.   
According to, a news portal about science and technology – the electrically spun cloth with nanometer-sized fibers can dissolve to release drugs, providing a platform for cheap, discrete and reversible protection.
The research was published this week in the Public Library of Science's open-access journal PLoS One.
A group weblog for bioengineering students at Texas A&M University – Bioengineers at Work, noted that the newly developed synthesised electrospun fibers deliver drugs inside the vagina during intercourse while physically blocking sperm access.
The Bioengineers at Work further noted that the fibers are made with an electric field to put a charged fluid through air to create fine, nanometer fibers.
The fiber’s solubility can be changed, which brings in the drug release aspect of the fiber design and synthesis.
The development of these polymers has been approved by the Food and Drug Administration.  The polymers themselves come in different forms; they can stay in the vagina up until they dissolve.  Some dissolve in days, and others dissolve in minutes.
Mixed fiber fabric also can release drugs at different times, increasing potency and long-term effectiveness.
This is the first developmental study using nanofibers for vaginal drug delivery and is believed to be more discrete than the condom, according to Bioengineers at Work.
The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation last month awarded the UW researchers about $1 million to pursue the technology.
Kim Woodrow, a UW assistant professor of bioengineering was quoted by in the university newsletter UW Today saying that: “Our dream is to create a product women can use to protect themselves from HIV infection and unintended pregnancy”.
“We have the drugs to do that. It's really about delivering them in a way that makes them more potent, and allows a woman to want to use it,” Woodrow said.
Electro spinning uses an electric field to catapult a charged fluid jet through air to create very fine, nanometer-scale fibers.
The fibers can be manipulated to control the material's solubility, strength and even geometry.
Because of this versatility, fibers may be better at delivering medicine than existing technologies such as gels, tablets or pills.
No high temperatures are involved, so the method is suitable for heat-sensitive molecules.
The fabric can also incorporate large molecules, such as proteins and antibodies that are hard to deliver through other methods.
Existing contraceptives such as the female condom and nonoxynol-9 can safeguard women against both unwanted pregnancies and STDs. But the former method lacks discretion and the latter “in vivo is not safe for multipurpose prevention,” researcher Kim Woodrow says in an email.
“To date, no single product exists that women can use discreetly for simultaneous and effective prevention of STIs (including HIV) and contraception,” Woodrow says.
Last year, Woodrow presented the concept, and co-authors Emily Krogstad and Cameron Ball, both first-year graduate students, pursued the idea.
“This method allows controlled release of multiple compounds,” Ball said. “We were able to tune the fibers to have different release properties.”
One of the fabrics they made dissolves within minutes, potentially offering users immediate, discrete protection against unwanted pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases.
Another dissolves gradually over a few days, providing an option for sustained delivery, more like the birth-control pill, to provide contraception and guard against HIV.
The fabric could incorporate many fibers to guard against many different sexually transmitted infections, or include more than one anti-HIV drug to protect against drug-resistant strains (and discourage drug-resistant strains from emerging).
Mixed fibers could be designed to release drugs at different times to increase their potency, like the prime-boost method used in vaccines.
The electro spun cloth could be inserted directly in the body or be used as a coating on vaginal rings or other products.
Electro spinning has existed for decades, but it's only recently been automated to make it practical for applications such as filtration and tissue engineering.
This is the first study to use nanofibers for vaginal drug delivery.
While this technology is more discrete than a condom, and potentially more versatile than pills or plastic or rubber devices, researchers say there is no single right answer.
“At the time of sex, are people going to actually use it? That's where having multiple options really comes into play,” Krogstad said.
“Depending on cultural background and personal preferences, certain populations may differ in terms of what form of technology makes the most sense for them.”
The team wants to focus its efforts in places where HIV is widespread common and protection might not be as widely available, especially if sexual assault is common.
As the researchers further develop their product, they could incorporate fibers that shield against many STIs and multiple anti-HIV drugs to discourage and protect against drug-resistant strains.
This is really good news for millions of women out there.

December 2012
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