By Maggie Mertens
An antimicrobial gel tested as a method to curb the spread of HIV just proved ineffective in a major human study.
The gel, PRO 2000, was intended for vaginal use before sexual intercourse and aimed to give women the power to protect themselves from contracting the HIV virus.
In an earlier, smaller trial, it looked as thought the gel could cut the risk of HIV infection by as much as 30 percent. But the latest trial proves those results insignificant.
The latest trial was backed by the Microbicides Development Programme, a not-for-profit African-European partnership established to develop microbicides like this one. It involved more than 9,000 women in various parts of Africa over four years, but the results of the study showed no great difference in rates of infection for women who were given PRO 2000 and those who were given a placebo gel.
Microbicide gels have drawn a lot of interest, even though this isn't the first trial that's failed .
Researchers think an HIV-prevention product that is the woman's responsibility to use would be more effective than current options in curbing the spread of the virus in developing countries. In many societies condom-use in males is not catching on and it isn't socially acceptable for women to refuse sex or tell their partners what to do.
Sixty percent of people infected with HIV in sub-Saharan Africa are women, according to hivresourcetracking.org.
Scientists seem to be split on the microbicide issue now. Many scientists had already discounted the microbicides and encouraged researchers to pool their resources behind developing other methods of prevention. Tachi Yamada, president for global health programs for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation told NPR's Brenda Wilson in March that he was hoping to focus the foundation's efforts more on another method: the pre-exposure pill, or PrEP, that could be taken once a day or once a month to block infection for people who are uninfected.
However, organizations like the Microbicides Development Programme and AVAC (Global Advocacy for HIV Prevention) haven't given up on the idea yet. Though they are "disappointed" with the results of this trial, they hope to use the success of such a widespread trial to "help researchers and communities move forward in the search for safe and effective microbicides," according to Mitchell Warren, AVAC's executive director in a statement on their Web site.