A microbucude gel to prevent HIV infection
An estimated 33 million people live with HIV worldwide, and 5 millions are infected each year. Sexual transmission remains the main route of infection, representing 80% of HIV infections worldwide. The calls to condom use have slowed down, but not stopped, the spreading of the disease especially in sub-saharan Africa where practical and psychological barriers undermine their broad adoption of condom. In most cases, it is the man who opposes its use, with the result that women are particularly at risk. If they could adopt a protection mechanism that they could use on their own will, chances to avoid infection would increase considerably.
It is with this objective in mind that Teresa Gonzalo, young Spanish researcher and now co-founder of Ambiox Biotech, invested herself in the research on a vaginal microbicide gel with the potential characteristics to fight HIV spreading. A degree in Pharmacy and a PhD in Biomedicine from the University of Groningen (Netherlands), Gonzalo is expert of a type of nanomolecules, called dandrimers, which have the capability to adhere to one of the proteins contained in HIV capsule, making it difficult for the virus to attack the human cell's receptors and enter the cell. This type of gel does not cause reactions from the immune system and additionally it does not go into blood, which helps keeping the effect there locally where it is needed.
This is a principle that Gonzalo has also applied to the research on other diseases, where there is the need for a high selectivity of the drug, that is, the active principle must act on specific cells and not others. This is achieved through the design of polymer nanocapsules, totally biocompatible, which are just like a “bus” to keep different molecules together (among which, one or more active principles), so that they can be dispatched to one specific destination, and not elsewhere. “Through a synergy with albumin, we achieved delivering pentoxifylline, which contributes to the regression of the fibrotic process on the liver caused by hepatitis, to the relevant tissue”. A principle applicable to treat all type of cancers, for instance.
A direct benefit of this selective treatment is that lower concentrations of the drug can be used, but more effective results, as proved by experiments on rats. However, as Gonzalo learned on her skin, turning a laboratory result into a commercial product requires patience and an endless number of tests and controls to meet the strict requirements of the FDA (Food & Drug Agency) and its European equivalent. That is why, although the product could be further improved, sometimes there is the need to go step-by-step and commercialise a simpler product first, the microbicide gel that requires shorter delays for approval. Time is ticking, especially in developing countries where this treatment could save thousands of lives.