"They say that a vaccine is still decades away, but microbicides we may have in four [years] to five years," said Dr. Edwin Bayrd, associate director of the UCLA AIDS Institute.
Microbiocides also may sidestep the cultural stigma against condom use and their prohibitory cost. In many parts of Africa, a condom costs 20 cents -- about the same rate as a sex worker's fee, Bayrd said.
Researchers are also looking at using two different drugs in the microbicides that women could use undetected by their partners. The drugs are tenofovir, which kills the virus, and CCR5, a compound developed by Pfizer that prevents the virus from entering the CD4 t-cells.
"It's a designer molecule that exactly fits in this entry hole and serves as a plug," Bayrd said.
Currently, researchers are giving tenofovir to uninfected sex workers in Thailand to see whether this may prevent them from contracting the disease. According to Bayrd, tenofovir has a long half-life in the body so it could provide an arsenal of defense against an invading virus.
"Even if it's only 20 [percent] to 30 percent effective, that is still millions of lives saved," he said.
Dr. Robert Schooley, a professor of medicine and head of the division of infectious diseases at University of California San Diego, believes that developing current drugs is important.
"The best strategy is to get more serious about how we use treatment," Schooley said.
He's referring to the fact that right now, people may need to take upwards of 20 pills in one sitting. The Food and Drug Administration is currently reviewing one pill that incorporates three anti-HIV drugs -- Sustiva, Emtriva and Viread. This could make drug regimens less complicated, Schooley said.
Preliminary data suggests that this pill is just as effective in delivering the drugs to the body as if they were taken separately, according to Eric Miller, spokesman for the drug company Bristol Meyers Squibb, which co-developed the drug with Gilead Sciences.
"It's ultimately up to the FDA to review and approve the drug," Miller said.
However, the race for a cure should always include vaccine research, Overbaugh said.
"A vaccine is, in the long run, the home run."