Could technology be multi-purpose?

What if multipurpose prevention technology (MPT) could prevent women from unintended pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections? University of Washington researchers are exploring electrically spun cloth with nanometer-sized fibers that dissolve to release drugs, which provides a potential platform for inexpensive, discrete, and reversible protection.1

The University of Washington researchers, led by Kim Woodrow, PhD, MS, assistant professor of bioengineering, are working with electrospinning, which uses an electric field to project a charged fluid jet through air to create nanometer-scale fibers. The fibers are then manipulated to control the material’s solubility and strength. Based on their current research, the scientists believe such drug-eluting fibers might be better at delivering medicine than gels, tablets, or pills. No high temperatures are involved in creating the fiber, so the method is suitable for heat-sensitive molecules. The fabric also can incorporate large molecules, such as proteins and antibodies, that are hard to deliver through other methods, the scientists note.

Woodrow’s team is looking at use of the drug glycerol monolaurate (GML) in the spun fibers as a potential spermicide and nonhormonal contraceptive. What led them to investigate this drug? The scientists first screened several non-hormonal chemical contraceptives reported in the literature to have spermicidal activity; however, they were unsuccessful at showing potent function of these agents, according to Woodrow. Researchers then turned to glycerol monolaurate; research published by the group led by Ashley Haase, MD, head of the Microbiology Department at the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, indicates that GML is safe, non-inflammatory, and has function against vaginal pathogens including HIV.2

Investigation of GML’s structure led the Washington researchers to believe it could interact with the sperm cell and act in a manner that has been reported for its function against bacteria, says Woodrow.

“In the end, we were committed to identifying a non-hormonal chemical contraceptive to use in our materials, and there were few options for us to evaluate,” Woodrow states. “We knew that if GML did demonstrate activity against sperm, like we showed in our paper, it would build on the work from the Haase group and could be very significant for the field.”

What’s the next step?

Woodrow’s team will be working to demonstrate the versatility of the drug-eluting fiber technology for delivering diverse agents useful for different sexual health indications, including HIV and contraception. Support comes from the National Institutes of Health/National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases in Bethesda, MD, and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in Seattle,

“We also are interested in how to control independently the mechanical and chemical barrier function of these materials,” Woodrow states. “A significant focus of our future work will focus on understanding the materials and manufacturing requirements for scale-up as we move toward translating the technology.”

The foundation’s 18-month grant was made in October 2012, at a funding level just under $1 million, confirms Katie Harris, foundation spokesperson.

“This is an area the foundation is continuing to explore,” Harris states. “We have an internal cross-team working group that has identified MPTs as a priority and – together with partners – is working to determine our investment strategy in this area.”

Which technology best?

Other projects funded by the Gates Foundation include investigation led by Lisa Rohan, PhD, associate professor at the University of Pittsburgh School of Pharmacy and associate investigator at Magee-Women’s Research Institute (MWRI), both in Pittsburgh. Rohan’s team is looking at whether polymeric films are a viable alternative topical dosing strategy for delivery of drug candidates such as those targeting HIV and contraceptive agents. The 15-month grant, made in October 2012, provides about $750,000 for such work, says Harris. The investigators hope to find out if such films can be manufactured and distributed to “resource-poor” places in the world before early-stage clinical trials can be expanded. Rohan also is working with Sharon Hillier, PhD, professor of obstetrics, gynecology and reproductive sciences and of molecular genetics and biochemistry at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine and MWRI senior investigator, on a recently launched, early-stage clinical trial to test the safety of a vaginal film preparation containing the microbicide dapivirine to ward off HIV infection.

The foundation also has made a grant to the New York City-based Population Council to explore the acceptability of progesterone-releasing vaginal contraceptive rings in sub-Saharan Africa, says Harris.

“While this is a contraceptive-only product, not an MPT, we do hope to learn more about the acceptability of vaginal rings in general in sub-Saharan Africa, since MPT products may take the form of vaginal rings,” states Harris.


  1. Ball C, Krogstad E, Chaowanachan T, et al. Drug-eluting fibers for HIV-1 inhibition and contraception. PLoS ONE 2012; 7(11): e49792. Doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0049792.
  2. Li Q, Estes JD, Schlievert PM, et al. Glycerol monolaurate prevents mucosal SIV transmission. Nature 2009; 458(7,241):1,034-1,038.