Finally, Microbicides Get Some Love

Published on
February 26, 2009

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation's $100 million grant to the International Partnership for Microbicides is big news for HIV prevention researchers frustrated by years of skimpy funding and scientific setbacks. The United Kingdom Department for International Development kicked in another $28.5 million. You can read more about the grant in this press release, which received little coverage in the mainstream media. An exception is this Bloomberg story.

Microbicides are gels or creams used vaginally or anally before sex to prevent infection with HIV or other sexually transmitted diseases. They have received far less media coverage than the search for an HIV/AIDS vaccine, which faces its own struggles.

I covered microbicides extensively as a medical writer for the San Jose Mercury News, thanks to a Kaiser Family Foundation health reporting grant that allowed me to attend a research conference in Belgium and cover a microbicide trial in India. It's a fascinating, if long-stymied, field of research that's worth your attention.

Several high-profile microbicide candidates have failed in clinical trials in developing countries. Some have actually exacerbated HIV transmission by irritating the lining of the vagina, making it more receptive to the virus.

Earlier this month, however, came the first encouraging results for a microbicide when the National Institutes of Health Microbicide Trials Network reported that a gel called PRO2000 was 30 percent more effective than a placebo in preventing HIV. Check out the New York Times story on this study and another small microbicide study in monkeys here.

Thirty percent effectiveness may not sound impressive, but preventing HIV is a numbers game: if 30 of 100 women are able to avoid infection by using microbicides, that's 30 fewer people transmitting the disease to others. Multiply that effect by millions of people, and you've got a real chance of slowing HIV/AIDS in developing countries.

The most significant microbicide trials are taking place in nations with high or quickly rising rates of HIV transmission, including South Africa and India. But there are plenty of research studies and advocacy activities taking place closer to home if you're interested in covering this topic.

Check out the Eastern Virginia Medical School's Center well-funded CONRAD (Contraceptive Research and Development) program and research taking place at the University of Pittsburgh and Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. The Global Campaign for Microbicides, the field's leading advocacy group, tracks research and advocacy around the United States as well as abroad. The Alliance for Microbicide Development, a coalition of researchers, advocates and industry, also has great resources on its Web site.