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Pittsburgh-Based Microbicide Trials Network Creates HIV Prevention Products

What if HIV was not only preventable, but also if sexually active individuals had a list of options to prevent the disease that newly infects an estimated 50,000 people a year in the United States?

The Pittsburgh-based Microbicide Trials Network (MTN) has been awarded $70 million for use over seven years to develop and test HIV prevention products.

MTN has completed 13 trials since 2006 from its base at the University of Pittsburgh and Magee-Women’s Research Institute.

The network will use the money to develop microbicides to be applied inside the vagina or rectum that will release little bits of drugs that are active against HIV and could block transmissions of the disease.

According to co-principle investigator Sharon Hillier, the researchers are concentrating on young women and men who have sex with men because they continue to have high rates of new HIV infection.

“It’s not that they do anything really very different, it’s just that at that age, many people are not in stable, long-term relationships and therefore are much more likely to be exposed to the infectious agent,” Hillier said.

MTN is conducting a trial of a vaginal ring that would release low levels of drugs over a month.

“It’s a little flexible ring that can be made out of silicone or it can be made out of other kinds of squishy plastic-like material,” Hillier said. “And essentially within that ring itself is a little bit of drugs that can block HIV infection.”

MTN researchers are also trying to create a lubricant-like product that both men and women can use to prevent HIV during anal sex.

“It’s young men who have sex with men who are perhaps just coming into their own sexually, and who find themselves in positions where it’s not always easy to negotiate condom use or to insist on condom use,” Hillier said.

Hillier is also working on a small strip of film, which she compared to a Listerine breath mint strip, that would dissolve in the vagina to deliver a drug very quickly.

“In the future, I think we’re going to have gels for people who want gels, lubricants that is, we’ll have films, and we’ll have these sustained delivery rings, rings that can just be used once a month and can give you a month of protection,” Hillier said. “So I think the important thing is that people will have options for how to protect themselves beyond just the simple condom.”

Jess is from Elizabeth Borough, PA and is a junior at Duquesne University with a double major in journalism and public relations. She was named as a fellow in the WESA newsroom in May 2013.