March 4 (HealthDay News) -- Scientists report that a common germ-killing compound prevented transmission of an HIV-like virus in five female monkeys, an encouraging sign that it might also work in humans.
The research is still in its early stages. However, the researchers said the compound could eventually make its way into sexual lubricants that women could use to avoid infection with the virus that causes AIDS.
"It's a promising lead that we're on to something that's a different way to approach the problem of prevention," said study co-author Dr. Ashley T. Haase, head of the Department of Microbiology at the University of Minnesota.
Currently, the most practical ways to prevent HIV transmission are abstinence, monogamy with an uninfected partner and protected sex. Researchers have spent years trying to develop another option: a gel that women, and perhaps men, could use to kill the AIDS virus before it enters the body.
But scientists have had trouble killing the virus without harming the person in the process. Some gels, for example, actually made transmission easier by causing tears in the lining of the vagina.
In the new research, researchers examined a compound called glycerol monolaurate, which is recognized as safe. It's found in products ranging from ice cream to cosmetics and kills a variety of germs in addition to helping substances mix properly, said study co-author Patrick M. Schlievert, a professor of biology at the University of Minnesota.
In the new study, researchers tested the compound on five female rhesus macaques that were vaginally exposed to the monkey equivalent of the AIDS virus. The findings were published in the March 4 online issue of Nature.
The monkeys avoided infection. Four out of five other monkeys who weren't treated with the compound developed infections after being exposed.
The next step is to move on to studies that will confirm the compound works and to try to find doses that "are more applicable to the real world," Haase said.
There are other questions to be answered, including whether the treatment would protect men from infection when they have sex with men or women.
The good news: The compound would cost less than a cent for each dose for a woman, Schlievert said.
Dr. Jeffrey C. Laurence, a professor at Cornell University who studies AIDS, said the new study is innovative, because the treatment targets the body's immune responses rather than directly killing HIV itself.
The challenge is to develop a product that prevents AIDS and is also "unobtrusive, easy to use, and has long-lasting effects, so that it need not be applied daily or before each act of intercourse," said Laurence, who's also a senior scientist for programs at The Foundation for AIDS Research.
SOURCES: Ashley T. Haase, M.D., head, department of microbiology, and Patrick M. Schlievert, Ph.D., professor, biology, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis; Jeffrey C. Laurence, M.D., professor, Cornell University, and senior scientist, programs, The Foundation for AIDS Research, Ithaca, N.Y.; March 4, 2009, Nature, online