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A recent discovery that a vaginal gel consisting of nanoparticles carrying bee venom can serve both for contraception and for HIV prevention won a grant from the Gates Foundation.
by Jack Marshall Staff Reporter
The gel is especially promising for improving sexual health because it caters to women. This differs from condoms, which have been the number-one choice to prevent the spread of HIV but depend heavily on male participation and willingness to use them.
"This gel gives women an opportunity to empower themselves to prevent HIV and pregnancy with a product they can use themselves," said Bradley Stoner, associate professor of anthropology.
The idea came from Sam Wickline, a professor of medicine, cell biology and physiology at the Washington University School of Medicine. Wickline is one of 65 scientists to participate in the 2010 Grand Challenges Explorations Grant program, a $100 million program sponsored by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
The Grand Challenges Explorations Grant traditionally rewards projects that result from unorthodox thinking and innovative ideas to aid in the fight against global health problems.
"Sperm and HIV are remarkably similar in their natural mechanism of genetic transmission," Wickline said in a news release. "Both need to fuse with their target cell in order to deliver their genetic payloads—DNA in the case of sperm, and RNA in the case of HIV."
And even though the gel is not as familiar to people as are condoms, Stoner thinks that people can be educated easily about its use.
"There have been some recent trials of intravaginal microbicide gels that prevent against HIV and other STDs, and they've been found to be well accepted by women, so this is also something that could be implemented probably with great success," Stoner said.
Though research on the gel is still in early stages, Stoner hopes that the gel will be affordable.
"If researchers are able to prove that this works and that it can be manufactured on a large scale, I hope that price would go down to supportable levels," Stoner said.
According to Wickline, the gel contains a "Trojan Horse," a lipid nanoparticle developed by Wickline and Gregory Lanza, a professor of medicine, biomedical engineering, and biology and biomedical sciences at the medical school, that attracts the sperm and HIV before destroying it using the bee toxin.
"The idea is to trick each [agent] to fuse with a synthetic Trojan horse—a nanoparticle that will overwhelm sperm and HIV in numbers and in destructive power," Wickline said.
The bee toxin, known as melittin, comes from the honeybee Apis mellifera. The method has been shown to be safe for clinical use.
"Cells readily take in melittin," Wickline said. "But once it gets in, it pokes holes in cell membranes to destroy the cells."
The Gates Foundation launched the Grand Challenges Explorations Grant program in 2003 as a way to find new solutions to health problems that have not been solved adequately by traditional means. Scientists can apply for the Explorations program online and receive news about whether their idea has been chosen for a $100,000 grant approximately four months after the submission deadline. The foundation gives grants of $100,000 twice a year, while successful projects can receive an additional grant of $1 million and become part of the Grand Challenges project, as Wickline's project has. According to the Grand Challenges website, the Gates Foundation has given grants to 405 researchers from 34 countries.
Projects this year include another HIV vaginal contraceptive, developed by Nongnuj Tanphaichitr of the Ottawa Health Research Institute, which, according to the Grand Explorations website, will "research whether the antimicrobial peptide LL-37 can be used simultaneously as a contraceptive and an anti-HIV treatment."
In addition to Tanphaichitr's and Wickline's projects, 17 other projects fall under the "Create New Technologies for Contraception" topic. The 65 projects, announced on Nov. 9 as winners of Grand Challenges Explorations grants, fall under 12 categories.
"We believe this can succeed because both sperm and HIV are built to target, fuse and discharge their cargo," Wickline said in the news release. "Our nanoparticles are similarly built to target, fuse and deliver their cargo. These attributes will enable a process of mutual assured destruction in a sequestered biological environment."
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