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Vaginal Ring Could Become First HIV Prevention Product For Women

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PITTSBURGH (KDKA) - While we've made great strides in the decades since the epidemic began, there's still plenty of work to be done to better protect against HIV and AIDS.

Now, the first new HIV prevention product for women is on the horizon.

Biology major and aspiring anesthesiologist Lauren Brick is excited about helping young girls everywhere protect themselves against HIV by taking part in a study.

"And I do want to join the Peace Corps one day," Brick said. "What a good way to start by helping girls in Africa."

Because of a clinical trial involving 20 girls ages 15-17 from the Pittsburgh area, and nearly 100 from across the country, a vaginal ring device is moving forward for girls worldwide.

"We wanted to study how safe and acceptable it was in teens, because across the world, teens are actually the population that's at greatest risk for acquiring HIV," Dr. Kathleen Bunge, of Magee-Womens Hospital of UPMC, said.

Similar to rings on the market now for birth control and for hormone replacement therapy, this ring doesn't contain hormones, but a medicine called dapivirine that keeps the virus from making copies of itself.

"It was sort of empowering. It was their ring for them to use to protect themselves," Dr. Bunge said.

The ring sits just under the cervix, or the opening of the womb, where it releases its medicine. It stays in for a month and then gets replaced. Doctors can check how much medicine is left in the ring once it's removed. That tells them how consistently it was used.

In two studies looking at more than 4,000 adult women in Africa, the dapivirine ring was safe and effective. When used correctly, it prevented HIV in 3 out of 4 women.

The researchers' goal now is to extend the labeling to a younger age group, which can be a challenge. You need a willing teen and consenting parents.

"It came down to finding just the right teen who was interested in a global problem like HIV and who had the time and commitment to dedicate to the study," Dr. Bunge said.

The 6-month-long study requires monthly visits. In the process, the girls get more than just check-ups.

"They were exposed to health care, exposed to research, they developed a relationship with an adult outside their immediate community that they could trust," Dr. Bunge said. "Most teens get their information from friends or from the internet, so to have a reliable health care source I think was a relief for some parents."

Similar studies are now planned in Africa, which are being led by UPMC's Dr. Sharon Hillier.

"The work we do here, actually touches lives all over the world," Dr. Hillier said.

However, FDA approval may still be years away.

"This would be the first new product for women for prevention of HIV," Dr. Hillier said.

In the meantime, more trials of rings with greater capabilities will be available right here in Pittsburgh.

"Long term, what would be great, would be to have a vaginal ring that a woman could use without her partner knowing, that she could control, that would have both an anti-HIV medicine and a contraception," Dr. Bunge said.

"I really like doing the studies. If it's to help women, I'm all for it," Brick said. "Even if the study didn't work, I still would have felt like well, at least I tried, you know, to make a difference."

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