While condoms are the only things that protect against both unwanted pregnancies and HIV, a lot of people aren’t big fans of stopping to put them on. Additionally, women are sometimes put in an awkward role, needing to pressure the man to use the thing – although female condoms certainly do exist, their bulkiness makes them rather unpopular. Now, however, a team of scientists from the University of Washington are working on a type of dissolvable fabric that could be used by women both for contraception and HIV protection.
The researchers started by mixing dissolved FDA-approved polymers and HIV-fighting antiretroviral drugs, and putting the resulting gooey solution in a syringe. In a process known as electrospinning, they then ejected the solution from the syringe and into an electrical field. This caused the solution to stretch into thin, nanometer-scale fibers that flew through the air, eventually sticking to a collecting plate. The fibers were then collected, and made into a stretchy fabric.
When inserted vaginally or used to coat something like a vaginal ring, the fabric blocks the passage of sperm and releases the drugs. By varying the production technique, it can be made to either dissolve within minutes for immediate use, or to dissolve over the course of a few days, allowing for birth control pill-like sustained protection.
Fibers containing different types of drugs could conceivably be mixed together in one piece of fabric, to provide protection against a variety of sexually-transmitted diseases. Multiple HIV-fighting drugs could also be combined in individual fibers, to protect against drug-resistant strains of the virus, and to keep such strains from developing.
Last month the team received a grant of almost US$1 million from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, to develop the technology further. They plan on getting an electrospinning machine to make butcher paper-sized sheets of the fabric, and spending a year testing various combinations of antiretroviral drugs and contraceptives. The best-performing combinations will then go into a final version of the fabric.
It is intended mainly for use in places like Africa that have high rates of HIV, although it could certainly also find more widespread use.