Mahua Choudhury, a Texas A&M University researcher whose specialty is pregnancy complications, is hoping to combat the spread of AIDS in Africa by focusing on the part that precedes the pregnancy.
Choudhury thinks she has come up with a “supercondom” — an idea that the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation consider promising enough and realistic enough to fund out of a highly competitive grant program. If the condom works as Choudhury and her research team suspect, it will keep HIV, and quite possibly other sexually transmitted diseases, from being transmitted — even if it breaks.
A bonus: The antioxidant that makes the condom work that way also enhances the sexual experience — a property Choudhury hopes will help to encourage the condom’s use and counteract the stigma this kind of contraception carries in much of the developing world.
Don’t look for the prophylactics on shelves yet. Choudhury said the research is far along, but her lab at A&M’s Rangel College of Pharmacy still is doing testing, with clinical trials then needed before it could be commercially available. That is a years-long proposition.
But Choudhury’s proposal has been featured in publications as far-flung as London’s Daily Mail and The Indian Express. It was also listed among the “nine condoms of the future” in the works featured by Men’s Journal in late 2014, alongside research at Arizona State University into a condom that mimics normal skin, and a “remote-control condom” that designers at private firm Comingle think could evolve “into a kind of sex toy.”
Choudhury’s condom, similar to a proposed hydrogel condom being investigated at Australia’s University of Wollongong, would be made of the soft, squishy material best known as the substance from which soft contact lenses are often made, as well as some beauty products. The hydrogel Choudhury is working with is both stretchy and tough.
The Gates Foundation solicited proposals in 2013 for such new types of condoms because “material science and our understanding of neurobiology has undergone revolutionary transformation in the last decade,” while the condom has remained basically unchanged for the last half-century.
Condoms, according to the foundation, are among the easiest ways to prevent the spread of HIV because they are easy to manufacture and are available without a prescription. About 37 million people worldwide have HIV or AIDS, a disease that targets the immune system and has claimed 34 million lives, according to WHO estimates.
To deal with what the Gates Foundation notes is “the male perspective (that) condoms decrease pleasure … creating a trade-off that many men find unacceptable,” the nonprofit wanted ideas for a condom “that is felt to enhance pleasure.” Choudhury’s design also is infused with an antioxidant known as quercetin, which stimulates blood flow, thus helping to maintain an erection.
“We are hoping, for example, that when a man solicits a prostitute, that he will be more likely to wear this because of its properties,” Choudhury told the American-Statesman.
More importantly, quercetin prevents HIV from replicating. Should the condom break, quercetin would be released and “preserve the barrier,” Choudhury said. A main remaining question for researchers is how quickly the antioxidant must be released to be effective.
Choudhury’s proposal was among 54 selected out of more than 1,700 applicants around the world who responded to the Gates Foundation’s request. It is the second foundation grant she has received, after a 2011 award for research into preeclampsia, a pregnancy complication marked by high blood pressure.
The foundation, created by the Microsoft founder and his wife, has the goal of “fostering innovation to solve key global health and development problems,” including HIV and AIDS.