For years, scientists have been developing gels or creams that contain HIV-preventing medication known as microbicides. But these topical ointments can be messy to apply and leak. Plus the medication absorbs slowly, so women have to use the gels or creams at least 20 minutes before sex.
But if a team of University of Washington bioengineers succeeds in shepherding its new research through clinical trials, women may some day be able to turn to "tampons" that dissolve to deliver HIV-preventing medication minutes before having sex.
In a preliminary study led by Cameron Ball and Kim Woodrow published in the journal Antimicrobial Agents and Chemotherapy, researchers combined silky, electrically spun fibers with maraviroc.
Maraviroc is a drug currently approved to help treat HIV infections that may also prevent healthy people from acquiring the virus.
The fibers dissolve quickly when they get wet. The vaginal tissue is infused with the microbicide within six minutes.
While several microbicides that could be used with the fibers are still undergoing clinical trials, the fabricating process has already been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
It is fabricated through a process called electrospinning, which is roughly comparable to the traditional spinning of yarn from wool. Electrospinning, according to researchers, turns the liquid into extremely fine fibers.
Ball told NPR.org, "Each thread is about 200 times smaller than a human hair."
That gives the fabric great flexibility, so it can be easily shaped in many ways. One option is to fold the fabric into a torpedo-like shape that could go inside a tampon applicator.
Although it is referred to as a tampon, the method is not to be confused with menstrual hygiene as the material is not meant to absorb blood.
The latest study showed that the fibers can hold 10 times the concentration of medicine as anti-HIV gels or creams currently in development.
However women could be waiting for a decade before they are able to buy these products.