Antioxidant has become a bit of a buzzword lately, especially with regards to food and supplements. While our body naturally produces its own, they’re found in abundance in certain plants, and their intrinsic properties promise great things, such as fighting cancer and inflammation. So why, pray tell, are scientists lacing condoms with them? No, it’s not to give your sperm an energy boost. It’s to help prevent HIV transmission, while making sex better. A double win.
HIV is a preventable disease: needle exchange programs, blood screening, antiviral drugs, and condoms are all effective at thwarting transmission. Yet there are still around 2 million new cases each year. Only around half of those infected, which currently numbers around 37 million, are on treatment, and even those who are do not necessarily comply with the daily regimens of drugs needed to lower HIV levels enough to make transmitting the virus extremely unlikely.
There is also the issue that condoms are not infallible, and the sorry fact is that most people don’t like wearing them. This is where a promising new project from the Texas A&M Health Science Center comes in. Headed by Mahua Choudhury, her team hopes to develop a cheap, pleasure-enhancing condom that also helps fight against HIV. The idea was innovative enough that it secured funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s Grand Challenge in Global Health award.
“If we succeed, it will revolutionize the HIV prevention initiative,” Choudhury said in a statement. “We are not only making a novel material for condoms to prevent the HIV infection, but we are also aiming to eradicate this infection if possible.”
First off, the condom isn’t made from latex like the majority of those currently on the shelves. Some people have a latex allergy, while others simply don’t like the feel of it. Instead, the team is using something called hydrogel – a tough, highly elastic material predominantly made of water. Laced within this will be a type of antioxidant called a flavonoid, likely quercetin.
Foods that are rich in quercetin include onions, apples, broccoli, and berries. In the lab, flavonoids have demonstrated an abundance of promising properties, such as antiallergic, antiviral, and anticarcinogenic actions, and quercetin has also demonstrated both anti-HIV and antimicrobicide activity in cells in a dish. The idea is that, if the condom breaks, the antioxidants will be released from the material, attacking HIV before it has a chance to reach susceptible cells in the partner.
As an added bonus, quercetin is also a stimulant. By boosting blood flow and relaxing smooth muscle, the antioxidant could help maintain erection and also enhance pleasure. The hope is that these properties might actually make people want to use condoms, rather than being reluctant to do so.
The product isn’t ready yet; the material has been created, but it needs further testing to find out if enough of the antioxidant is released upon breakage to be effective. If they succeed in their endeavor, they want to make sure this low-cost option is available to as many people as possible, giving it a chance to make a dent in the rate of new infections.