In the worldwide race to cure HIV, researchers out of Los Angeles have made some of the biggest recent breakthroughs. By late 2009, UCLA had discovered human blood stem cells could be used to fight HIV-infected cells. And by this August, USC professor Pin Lang had created a virus that could do the same.
But both those laboratory victories are far from practical application. One of the more tangible goals, as of late, has been to invent an HIV-preventing topical gel that people can purchase and apply themselves. Huge news on that front:
Yesterday, on the heels of Magic Johnson's big coming-out anniversary, UCLA announced that its scientists had completed a successful trial of "a topically applied microbicide gel containing a potent anti-HIV drug."
Not only did the gel "significantly reduce infection when applied to rectal tissue that was subsequently exposed to HIV in the laboratory," but it was "found to be safe and acceptable to users."
The new drug is called UC781. Previously, a drug called Tenofovir had also shown promise as a rectal gel in UCLA trials, but, troublingly, it gave some of the study's participants uncomfortable side effects.
Various vaginal gels have likewise proven safe and effective. However, as the new UCLA study notes, "the risk of HIV infection, per sex act, is anywhere from 20 to 2,000 times greater with receptive anal sex than receptive vaginal sex."
Of course, it remains to be seen whether the general populous will be down with rubbing gel on their collective rectum before sex -- and whether they'll be capable of that kind of foresight. Here's the closest thing we can find to a description of how, and how often, the UCLA Guinea pigs had to apply the product, via medical journal PLoS ONE:
Two concentrations of UC781 gel (0.10% and 0.25%) formulated for topical vaginal application and demonstrating safety in early dose-ranging vaginal safety studies were applied rectally in this study. The product was delivered using the same applicator design as used in vaginal microbicide trials.
... An innovative 2-stage trial design was used consisting of an initial, single rectal application of either of the two concentrations of UC781 or ... placebo gel followed several weeks later by 7 once-daily, self-administered rectal applications.
We've contacted study author Peter Anton for more details on these alleged "applicators" -- because that's obviously what the average HIV-fighter is going to be worried about, once these gels are as common as condoms.
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(Anton has been a prime target of the anti-animal-testing crazies who constantly swarm UCLA. Ironically, they've described him in the past as a "primate vivisector ... who oversees experiments in which microbicides are forced into the rectums of primates, purportedly as AIDS research." Looks like that kind of worked out for him. And this time, he used humans.)
Truly, though -- this is a huge step toward preventing infection on street level. Earlier this year, on the eve of HIV's 30th birthday, UCLA associate clinical professor Michael Gottlieb told LA Weekly reporter Dennis Romero that "people are being less cautious. The false impression is that the epidemic in the U.S. is over and that safe sex is passe."
Thanks to some smartypants over at UCLA, a more practical, comfortable preventative approach may soon be at all our fingertips. (OK, you can get your snickers out now.)