Electrically spun cloth offers new contraception

Cameron Ball holds up a piece of the electrically charged cloth created in the lab. A 3-by-5 inch piece of cloth used to take an hour to create but with new funding from the Gates foundation the lab will be able to create much larger sheets in a fraction of the time.

Photo by Joshua Bessex

Electrically spun cloth is providing a new way of preventing HIV infection and unintended pregnancy. The latest UW research with complex polymer fibers might give new alternatives for sexual protection in the future.

The process starts with a complex procedure called electrospinning. Fibers are created by using an electrical field to propel polymers through the air, creating nanometer-scale fibers. These fibers can be formulated into different strengths, shapes, and abilities to dissolve. The fibers are made into fabrics that not only create physical barriers but can also be loaded with different drugs that take action against sperm, HIV, and potentially other sexually transmitted diseases.

Cameron Ball, a graduate student working on the research, believes fabric might be more effective than other forms of protection because of rapid drug delivery. Fabric is thin, has a large surface area, and dissolves extremely quickly. Most likely, the fiber would be sold in a similar form to vaginal films.

“Our dream is to create a product women can use to protect themselves from HIV infection and unintended pregnancy,” said Kim Woodrow, who presented the research project for the UW bioengineering department. “We have the drugs to do that. It’s really about delivering them in a way that makes them more potent and allows a woman to want to use it.”

Although the operation has been fairly small scale up until now, it received a $1 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation last month and is currently in the works for the implementation of a new machine to create large quantities of complex fibers.

A chemical called Glycerol monolaurate (GML) not only decreases sperm motility, preventing sperm from swimming, but also acts as a physical barrier.

“GML acts as a chemical and physical contraceptive,” said Emily Krogstad, a graduate student who worked on the research with Woodrow and Ball.

These materials have other uses besides their potential as contraception. Ball said the fibers have the ability to carry drugs that can fight multiple diseases simultaneously.

“The main aspect of this is that you have combined protection,” Ball said.

Woodrow’s team is not worried about finding the proper drugs to do the job but the most optimal way to release them.

Currently, the most practical uses for this form of contraception are in the form of gels, vaginal films, and dissolving tablets. Ball and Krogstad are looking at what form and dosage will be the most effective.

The lab work of the fiber is merely in the preliminary stages. In the future, it will see animal testing, clinical trials, and government approval before it can be bought in stores.

New drugs typically take 15 to 20 years to hit pharmacies, but because the fibers deal with existing drugs and give new ways to release them, it may be sooner that they reach patients on the market. Release depends on the success of future experimentation, safety, and FDA approval.

Reach contributing writer Karina Mazhukhina at development@dailyuw.com. 

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