New dissolving “tampons” could protect women against HIV

A new form of PrEP is just for women -- but it could also be a way to protect against unplanned pregnancy

Topics: HIV, HIV/AIDS, AIDS, HIV research, Sexually Transmitted Infections, Herpes, Contraception, Birth Control, tampons, Research, Science, Bioengineering, women, reproductive health, Pregnancy, Sex, Condoms, pre-exposure prophylaxis, Prep, , , ,

New dissolving "tampons" could protect women against HIV (Credit: Jiri Hera via Shutterstock)

For women actively looking to avoid getting HIV (so, most women), there aren’t many options that can successfully prevent contraction without also necessitating that women have complete control over their bodies and sexual experiences. That’s especially true in developing countries, where women commonly find themselves in positions where they can’t simply demand that their sexual partners wear a condom — and where, as a result, the prevalence of HIV among females is extraordinarily high.

A group of researchers at the University of Washington is trying to change that — with tampons. Well, they might better be described as “tampons”: A team of bioengineers is developing a dissolvable version of the women’s menstruation product, which is packed with HIV-killing medication that absorbs into the body in a matter of minutes. If the team successfully gets the prototype through clinical trials, the method could become the next major prophylactic to help prevent millions of new cases of HIV around the world.

Cameron Ball, a bioengineering doctoral candidate and co-author of new research on the dissolvable tampons (published in Antimicrobial Agents and Chemotherapy), explained to the Huffington Post that the method could be used just moments before sex, unlike current pre-exposure prophylactics (PrEP) like Truvada:

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We envision a product that could dissolve, pretty much instantaneously, into a gel and then spread around the vagina during sex … We want something that dissolves quickly so that people can say, “Hey, I wasn’t planning on it, but I’m going to have sex in five minutes so I need to use this product, and I want it to be completely dissolved before that.”

Ball’s method is not the first to attempt to offer PrEP without an orally ingested dose of HIV-killing drugs taken daily. Other researchers have looked into topical microbicides that can prevent HIV, which have mostly come in the form of gels or creams. A key problem with the topical treatments, however, is that they don’t tend to absorb well, leaving many people — women, especially — at risk.

But Ball’s tampon would likely absorb better directly into the vagina, without the same leakage, mess or high probability of contracting the virus. The dissolvable method could potentially even be used to prevent other sexually transmitted infections, such as herpes, or as a form of hormonal contraception. Additionally, similar methods could later be used rectally as well.

The product still faces several rounds of clinical trials, and it could be up to five years before it appears on the shelves of local pharmacies in the U.S. or around the world. For now, it’s an exciting prospect.

Jenny Kutner
Jenny Kutner is an assistant editor at Salon, focusing on sex, gender and feminism. Follow @jennykutner or email jkutner@salon.com.

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