April 27, 2014

Intravaginal Ring Could Protect Women Against HIV and Pregnancy

A new vaginal ring in development will serve the dual purpose of preventing both HIV and unwanted pregnancy.

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HIV budding

HIV budding

If a woman wants to protect herself from both HIV and pregnancy, she’s currently restricted to condom use. This is how it has been in the world of sexual health for a long time, and many women feel it is a limitation to them and their sex lives. However, a new wearable device could hit the market in the near future that would protect women from HIV, herpes, and pregnancy simultaneously.

Northwestern University biomechanical engineer Patrick Kiser created the revolutionary intravaginal ring (IVR) that releases both lenovogestrel (the active ingredient in many hormonal contraceptives) and tenofovir (an antiviral drug that protects against HIV and herpes).

Although it’s not available to the public now, the IVR is about to undergo its first tests in women. According to Northwestern University, the 5.5 cm ring is designed to be placed in the vagina for about 3 months, during which time it will secrete the  tenofovir and lenovogestrel.

The long-wear aspect is also new to the world of IVRs. Contraceptive-only IVRs (such as the NuvaRing) that are currently on the market can only be worn for about 3 weeks. This change is related to the unique polymer encasing on the ring that swells in the presence of bodily fluids. This, if all goes well, should allow the ring to increase drug output by 100 times, when compared to most IVRs. With controlled diffusion rates, there creates enough of the drugs to last 3 months.

According to Kiser, his team’s main obstacle when engineering this device was managing the difference in how the two drugs react when placed in a physiological environment. Tenofovir is water-soluble (able to dissolve in water), and lenovogestrel is water-insoluble (unable to dissolve in water). Because of this, the two substances had to be contained in separate areas of the ring, and encompassed in different materials, so as to control the respective diffusion rates of the drugs.

According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), about 50,000 people in the United States get infected with HIV each year, and there are about 1.1 million people currently living with HIV in the United States (16 percent of whom don’t know they have it). With numbers like these, it’s important that sexually active people everywhere take responsibility for their sexual health. Although it is still in its beginning stages, this new IVR is a thrilling new prospect for women and their partners everywhere.

Kendall Harshberger is a sophomore studying Human Development and Family Studies at Indiana University’s School of Public Health. She is on the sexual health committee of the IU Health and Wellness Department’s Peer Health Education program. Her interests include sexual health, the physiology of sex, and positive body image advocacy. She plans on obtaining her Master of Occupational Therapy degree after graduation.