Next time you reach for the toothpaste in your bathroom cabinet, examine that tube of tartar-control goo more closely. It freshens your breath; it's supposed to help prevent tooth decay; it even attempts to whiten your teeth. But some people now believe an ingredient in it could have an even more useful effect in an unexpected area. According to a study released this month by Canadian researchers, an ingredient commonly found in toothpaste and shampoo is also proving to prevent the transmission of sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV infection.
This bizarre discovery was made by a scientific team from the University of Laval, which recently presented its results to a group of infectious disease experts in Toronto. In addition to a host of chemical additives, colors, scents and cleansers, another ingredient found in both toothpaste and shampoo is sodium lauryl sulfate. An antibacterial agent used in personal-hygiene products, sodium lauryl sulfate also prevents the binding of the HIV-1 virus to target cells.
Which brings us to the subject of the testing procedure. How were these experiments conducted? Did Canadian women voluntarily show up at Laval's laboratories, asking that a scientist smear toothpaste and shampoo on their vaginas -- with perhaps the remainder of the products included as payment?
Sadly, the experiments were conducted on animals. A gel formulated from sodium lauryl sulfate was swabbed onto the vaginas of mice and rabbits. The good news is that the gel appeared to prevent transmission of not only HIV but herpes simplex type 1 and type 2 as well. Testing of its effectiveness in protecting against other sexually transmitted diseases, including syphilis, is planned for the near future.
"This can be used in combination with a condom," Laval biologist Jocelyne Piret told Reuters. "The idea is a woman cannot always negotiate the use of condoms, so it will be an alternative way to protect against HIV." Piret's research team has secured a North American patent on a secret formulation of sodium lauryl sulfate, in which it exists as a liquid at room temperature, but when applied to the body (i.e., the genitals) changes to a gel. More formulations are being prepared for the Phase 1 clinical trials scheduled to begin this fall, added Piret.
This "invisible condom" is of great interest to the World Health Organization, which hopes to introduce such topical microbicides to women as either a substitute for or a supplement to condoms.
One hopes that application of the gel will not require use of a toothbrush.