Scientists in Utah have developed what they term a "molecular condom", a type of gel which "turns semisolid in the presence of semen, trapping AIDS virus particles in a microscopic mesh".
"Due to cultural and socioeconomic factors, women often are unable to negotiate the use of protection with their partner," says Julie Jay, University of Utah doctoral candidate in pharmaceutics, speaking particularly of AIDS-ridden sub-Saharan Africa.
Hence Jay and her colleagues have developed an anti-HIV barrier gel intended for use by women before having sex.
"It flows at a vaginal pH, and the flow becomes slower and slower as pH increases, and it begins to act more solid at the pH of semen," Jay says.
"We did it to develop technologies that can enable women to protect themselves against HIV without approval of their partner," adds Patrick Kiser, Utah bioengineering prof. "This is important – particularly in resource-poor areas of the world like sub-Sahara Africa and south Asia where, in some age groups, as many as 60 per cent of women already are infected with HIV. In these places, women often are not empowered to force their partners to wear a condom."
Kiser and Jay believe that their molecular condom, made up of long-chain polymers, would act as an effective barrier to HIV infection on its own. As vaginal pH returned to normal and the barrier liquefied once more, HIV particles would naturally be "inactivated" - and antiviral drugs could also be included in the gel to help with this.
The molecular-condom tech is to be patented. The Utah boffins consider that human tests might start in "three to five years", and delivery of a product some years after that.
Kiser's team at Utah Uni has recently won a $100k grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation, which will enable the scientists to continue their research.
A new study on the technology will be published this week in the journal Advanced Functional Materials. ®