Women continue to be disproportionally affected by HIV around the world, but particularly in sub-Saharan Africa, where three in four new HIV infections are among young girls. For women seeking care in developing countries, preventing and managing HIV is an expensive proposition. Truvada, the pre-exposure HIV treatment drug commonly known as PrEP, costs about $1,500 a month and must be taken daily for continual HIV protection. Likewise, the antiretroviral therapies that attempt to control HIV infection are costly at nearly $20,000 a year. These oral medications as therapy are a non-starter in developing nations like Africa, where nearly 30 million people are infected with HIV.
But Phil Santangelo, biomedical engineering professor at Georgia Tech, has another approach in mind. He’s working on an aerosolized RNA-based HIV preventative that eventually could protect women against the disease. It’s applied vaginally and, currently, the aerosol has been tested on sheep and monkeys. The early results are promising; it’s been shown to create HIV antibodies that ward off the infection. It also has the potential to protect against genital herpes and other pathogens, depending on what protein the RNA encodes for.
“A single administration of this aerosol is showing expression of antibodies against HIV for up to three months in sheep,” said Santangelo. “Our hope is that this will be more affordable, granting easier access to women in developing countries, especially. With women’s health at the forefront of many conversations today, this has the potential to revolutionize disease prevention.”
Eventually, Santangelo says RNA could be used for contraception as well – the RNA would express antibodies that inhibit sperm. Again, if birth control can’t be accessed in developing countries, a self-administered, inexpensive aerosol could change the lives of many women.