High Tech 'Molecular Condom'

ByABC News
December 15, 2006, 8:13 AM

Dec. 18, 2006— -- It begins as a liquid.

When it comes into contact with the surfaces it is designed to protect, it congeals to form a thin, protective layer of solid gel.

And when its targeted intruder is present, it instantly changes back into a liquid, simultaneously delivering a lethal dose of antiviral chemicals.

It sounds like science fiction, but researchers at the University of Utah are working to bring this new type of "molecular condom" into reality.

"The words 'molecular condom,' put together, really mean microbicide," said lead researcher Patrick Kiser, an assistant professor of bioengineering at the university.

Microbicides, chemicals applied to the vaginal area in order to protect against HIV, have been in development for nearly two decades.

Researchers are experimenting with a host of different forms, from chemical-laced rings to antiviral gels.

What makes this microbicide different is that it is activated by the very substance that potentially carried the HIV virus -- semen.

"We are using the potential disease-carrying agent -- in other words, the semen -- to trigger the release of the drug with the hopes that this would make the microbicide much more active," Kiser said.

"We're targeting the virus before it can interact with the woman's tissues."

Women using the gel would apply it to the vaginal area before sex.

Once exposed to the higher temperature of vaginal tissues, the polymer-based gel would solidify, forming a protective barrier that would coat vulnerable tissues.

In the presence of semen, which is less acidic than the normal conditions inside the vagina, the solid gel would melt, delivering a burst of anti-HIV chemicals.

In addition to offering targeted protection, the solid gel form could ideally allow a single application of the microbicide to last for days or weeks.

Currently, the research is focused on developing a gel that would only fight HIV infection, it would not prevent pregnancy.

However, Kiser says if the anti-HIV version one day proves successful, other applications could also be forthcoming.

"We haven't designed this as a contraceptive; however, it would be possible to put a contraceptive into the gel," he said. "It is really a medium for a drug."