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How could an implant prevent HIV transmission?

Posted April 18, 2018

Humanity is still looking for ways to stop HIV and AIDS. HIV infection is difficult to prevent. Doctors recommend condoms or anti-HIV drugs, some other people promote traditional monogamous relationships, but HIV keeps spreading. Now scientists from the University of Waterloo have developed a vaginal implant, which works by decreasing the number of cells that the HIV virus can target.

The implant is a hollow tube with a couple of flexible arms to hold it in place. Image credit: University of Waterloo

When HIV infects a human body, it corrupts T cells that are usually activated when a virus enters the body. This means that if when the virus infects the body T cells would stay resting, they would not be corrupted and the HIV would not be spread between people. This seems like a bizarre concept, but it is very well known in the science world. In fact, the situation when T cells do not react to a virus is called immune quiescent. There are medicines that encourage T cells not to react to HIV infections as the virus enters the body. However, they struggle making way to the vaginal tract. Scientists think an implant would be a better solution.

Scientists created an implant, which can become a more reliable way to encourage T cells not to respond to infection. In other words, this implant could be a cheap and reliable barrier preventing HIV transmission. Interestingly, this research draws from a natural phenomenon. Scientists noticed that sex workers in Kenya frequently have sex with HIV positive clients. Often they do not even use any kind of protection. However, in many cases they never contract HIV. Scientists determined that it is because they have T cells that are naturally unresponsive to the virus. Emmanuel Ho, one of the authors of the research, said: “Observing this, we asked ourselves if it was possible to pharmacologically induce immune quiescence with medication that was better assured of reaching the point of infection. By delivering the medication exactly where it’s needed, we hoped to increase the chances of inducing immune quiescence”.

The implant is made from a hollow tube and two pliable arms, which are designed to hold it in place. The tube is filled with hydroxychloroquine, which slowly seeps to the outside because the porous material that the tube is made from. Scientists already performed experiments with animal models that confirm that the T cells in vaginal tract are less responsive after the implant is inserted and starts working.

Still, a lot of research remains to be done till we can reliably say that implants like this are a good protection against HIV. Scientists are not sure if such implants would work on their own or they should be considered a second line of protection instead. However, we can only hope that this solution will work and it will help stopping the spread of HIV.


Source: University of Waterloo

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