Researchers at the University of Washington (UW) have developed a material that could offer women a new means of protection against HIV. Demonstrated in the form of a tampon, the material is capable of carrying substantial loads of medicine, dissolving and releasing the drugs once its comes into contact with moisture.

The study builds on research conducted at UW's Department of Bioengineering back in 2012. Dr Kim Woodrow and her team were experimenting with electrospinning, a process where a charged fluid containing polymers and antiretroviral drugs is projected from a syringe and through an electric field.

The electric field causes the jet of liquid to break into tiny fibers, each measuring anywhere between 100 to several thousand nanometers. These then come to land on a collecting plate and combine to form a stretchy fabric capable of blocking sperm and, as the researchers discovered, carrying and releasing contraceptives and antivirals.

Because certain elements of the material can be controlled, such as the solubility, strength and size of the fibers, the researchers say that it may prove more versatile than other anti-HIV technologies currently in development. One sample dissolved within minutes, an application that could protect against unwanted pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases. Another sample dissolved over several days, which could prove useful in sustained delivery of drugs, such as birth-control pills and anti-HIV medicines.

The team says that the electrospun material can carry a large load of maraviroc, an antiretroviral drug used in the treatment of HIV which has minimal side effects. The material is able to dissolve and release the drug quickly and could potentially be inexpensive to produce. The researchers are also hopeful that it could find applications beyond fighting HIV, such as providing a platform for the treatment of bacterial, fungal and viral infections.

The team's research was published in the journal Antimicrobial Agents and Chemotherapy.