WASHINGTON, DC-Women are more susceptible to sexually transmitted diseases and are often not able to persuade their partner to use condoms. Many women feel helpless protecting themselves from AIDS and other diseases, especially in situations where domestic violence is more prevalent than safe sex.
Ten years ago, Peter Piot, MD, executive director of the United Nation's AIDS program, recommended the creation of a microbicide for women who want to protect themselves without notifying their partner. However, he says the method of protection is not in existence a decade later because pharmaceutical company reluctance.
They do not see the financial future in a product that would be sold primarily in the third world. Also, the microbicide would have to be inexpensive to be effective in countries were AIDS infections are the most concentrated.
There are, however, several smaller companies researching and developing such a product. There are now 60 potential products being researched and tested including: gel called the invisible condom, a gel that stops viruses from replicating, and a chemical from plants that have been genetically engineering to product human antibodies against sexually transmitted diseases.
Pro-2000, a gel made by Interneuron, stops HIV and herpes infections by binding with the viruses. The gel may also be used as a contraceptive. Buffer Gel changes to acidity of the vagina to kill viruses. Ushercell is a gel, being developed by a nonprofit organization called Conrad, that works by stopping pathogen's entry into cells. The gel is actually a big sugar molecule that is thought to fight off HIV and the bacteria that cause both chlamydia and gonorrhea. Carraguard, developed by the Population Council in New York, contains a seaweed-extract that is thought to prevent viral infections by coating the vaginal walls. The same extract is used to thicken ice cream, yet in germicides seems to allow conception while preventing HIV.
The need for a successful microbicide, which is estimated to cost $50 million to develop, is rooted in the fact that women in many areas of the world are technically considered property and have no rights. They are unable to choose their mates, their relationships, or whether or not they can protect themselves from sexually transmitted diseases.
At the same time, there are many women in developed nations, with standard rights for both sexes, that live in abusive relationships and are also unable to protect themselves as well.
Yet, there are technical problems that keep the project from reaching those in need. Researchers do not understand which host cell a compound should attack to prevent HIV. They are still learning how cells in the genital area react to chemicals, in comparison to other areas of the body. Plus, just when researchers thought they had a successful spermicide that they could base their research on, Nonozynol-9 was found to increase HIV transmission rather than decrease it, as previously shown.
The Global Campaign for Microbicides is now running the "Looking for Mrs. McCormick" campaign to fund the project. The reference to Frances McCormick, who personally funded research on the birth control pill, is intended to persuade corporate donations. The Rockefeller Foundation has a microbicide initiative and the Gates Foundation has donated $25 million to the cause.
Some of this money has gone to smaller biotechnology companies like Biosys. They are developing a cream called Savvy that is thought to be both a contraceptive and a method of preveting HIV, syphilis, chlamydia, and gonorrhea. The product is being tested in safety trials and if all goes well, could be on the market within three years.
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