New intravaginal ring protects against HIV, pregnancy

Olivia Exstrum, Reporter

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A Northwestern researcher developed an intravaginal ring last month that will be the first device to protect women from pregnancy, HIV and herpes.

Patrick Kiser, a visiting associate professor of biomedical engineering and obstetrics and gynecology, said the device was created in an effort to improve reproductive health, specifically in developing countries.

Kiser and his colleagues have been working on developing the ring for “six or seven years in various forms and versions.”

“The real underlying idea behind the ring is that there is an unmet need for HIV prevention technology,” Kiser said. “This need coincides with a need for family planning technology in developing countries, especially those in Africa.”

Although there are other effective contraceptive methods including condoms, men in developing countries often refuse to use them, Kiser said. He said he and his colleagues hope the ring’s contraceptive element will encourage women to use it. In addition to pregnancy prevention, it will give women the added benefit of HIV protection.

The ring is vaginally inserted and stays in place for three months. It delivers controlled doses of tenofovir, an antiretroviral drug, and levonorgestrel, a contraceptive. The two drugs are delivered at the site of transmission, which allows them to be effective in lower doses than that normally found in pills. Kiser said it was a challenge getting the two drugs to work together, as they have very different properties and require two separate polymers to control their delivery.

“At the end of the day, we overcame all those challenges and figured out a way to make a stable device that is manufacturable and translatable to the clinic,” he said.

In addition to creating the ring, Kiser and his colleagues have spent the last three years writing a paper explaining the device’s engineering. Meredith Clark, manager of drug delivery at the nonprofit Contraception Research and Development and professor at the Eastern Virginia Medical School, collaborated with Kiser on both researching and writing the paper. Clark said compiling the paper was difficult because there was a large variety of elements that needed to be conveyed.

“We wanted to tell the story from a high level perspective, but on top of that there was a lot of engineering that went into this,” she said. “There were a lot of aspects we were trying to capture in this one paper.”

The project and research is supported by the Contraception Research and Development and the United States Agency for International Development. Kiser said USAID is working on a variety of initiatives to combat the HIV and AIDS epidemics, many of which involve some type of family planning.

“HIV prevention technology and contraceptive technology are very, very different,” Kiser said.

Although contraceptive technology is very well developed — female condoms, barriers, spermicide, vaginal rings, such as NuvaRing, and IUDs are a few examples of such technology — HIV prevention technologies are fairly new. Kiser said the ring was created primarily for women in developing countries, but a market also exists for the product in more developed countries due to its ability to protect against pregnancy, HIV and herpes.

“If we can make a device that targets multiple conditions that women are concerned about, this can really be a game changer in women’s health and contraceptive technology,” he said.

Kiser and his colleagues expect testing for the ring to begin in June or July of this year. However, it may take several years before it is approved by the Food and Drug Administration and is available on the market for purchase.

Email: oliviaexstrum2017@u.northwestern.edu
Twitter: @OliviaExstrum

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