New Study May Hold Key to HIV Prevention in Women

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New findings by researchers at the Oak Crest Institute of Science may explain why researchers have not been successful in developing ways to prevent HIV in women.

Researchers have made great strides over the years in developing relatively effective treatments for HIV-infected individuals, however, methods to prevent the disease have been less successful. New findings recently published in the journal PLoS One, by researchers at the Oak Crest Institute of Science in Pasadena, CA, may shed some light on the reason why.

The Oak Crest team, in collaboration with researchers at the University of Texas Medical Branch and the City of Hope, is performing one of the most comprehensive studies to date on the physiological make up of the vaginal tract and the possibility that vaginally-administered antiviral agents may reduce the risk of acquiring HIV and HSV (genital herpes).

This cutting edge team of scientists recently completed a study on the whole genome gene expression in 44 vaginal tissue samples from six reproductive-age women undergoing gynecologic surgeries. The analysis unexpectedly revealed that a large fraction (43%) of gene isoforms corresponding to membrane transporters was above the median expression level in all samples. "These surprising findings are extremely important and indicate that active transport in the vaginal mucosa could play an important role in the absorption and secretion of topically and systemically administered drugs," says Dr. Marc M. Baum, president of Oak Crest. "The effects of these transporters have typically not been taken into account when developing strategies for the prevention of HIV and HSV," he adds.

The findings by the Oak Crest team dispel previous investigations on intravaginal drug delivery, which indicated that the drugs diffuse passively into the vaginal mucosa. Since unprotected vaginal intercourse has become a predominant route of infection for HIV, it is especially important for researchers to understand the physiology of the vaginal tract.

"It is remarkable that we understand so little of the vaginal expression patterns and locations of molecular transporters key to the disposition of applicants designed to improve women’s health," says Dr. Richard Pyles, Professor, Pediatrics; Microbiology and Immunology, University of Texas Medical Branch.

Topical administration of drugs directly to the vaginal tract is an established and widely used approach for birth control and hormone replacement therapy. Extension of these strategies to the intravaginal administration of antiviral compounds for the prevention of HIV and HSV infection is currently being explored, and researchers at Oak Crest are leaders in this emerging field.

The multipurpose pod-intravaginal ring ("pod-IVR") under development by Oak Crest allows up to 10 drugs to be released simultaneously from polymer-coated drug pods within the ring. The release rate from each pod is controlled independently through both the pod structure and the properties of the pod components. This new drug delivery system is unlike any other device under development today because of its ability to deliver more than two drugs at a time.

"The combined efforts of our studies on the fundamental aspects of the vaginal physiology along with the development of our novel pod-IVR has global implications," says Dr. Baum. "The understanding of these two key elements and how they can work together provides us with the potential to save thousands of lives."

Dr. Pyles adds, "Establishing a basic molecular transporter expression profile for the human vaginal mucosa will greatly advance the design of next generation drugs and delivery devices including IVR to more effectively reach the target cells."

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention approximately 34.2 million people around the world are living with HIV today. Since the pandemic began in the early 1980s approximately 75 million individuals have become infected with HIV. And while the number of deaths each year from this disease is dropping, nearly 30 million people with AIDS have died worldwide since the epidemic began. It is estimated that over 7,000 people become infected with HIV every day.

About the Oak Crest Institute of Science

Founded in 1998, the Oak Crest Institute of Science is an innovative chemistry research and education center that advances the understanding of environmental and medical science through rigorous academic laboratory programs. Oak Crest originated with the goal of providing an academic science research environment accessible to participants spanning a broad diversity of educational levels from high school to post graduate. It was the vision of Dr. Marc M. Baum, Oak Crest’s founder, that a small, intimate research institute could be highly complementary to established large institutions of higher learning in conducting rigorous, productive, relevant science research while broadening the participation of underrepresented groups (by race, ethnicity, gender, and socio-economic standing) in science. Oak Crest is dedicated to solving some of the toughest biomedical and environmental problems of today while cultivating tomorrow’s scientists one individual at a time.

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Dr. Marc M. Baum
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