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Meharry scientists seek AIDS shield for women

Researcher Michael Linde (right) assists Dr. James Hildreth in the lab at Meharry Medical College in Nashville, Tenn. A UMNS Web-only video image.

By Henri Giles*
Feb. 7, 2007 | NASHVILLE, Tenn. (UMNS)

With every experiment, Dr. James Hildreth and his team of researchers believe they are closer to answers about AIDS, a leading cause of death for African-American women ages 25-34.

Working at Meharry Medical College, a historically black medical, dental and research school supported by The United Methodist Church, the scientists are developing a new drug to protect all women against the virus.

“A vaccine for HIV may be a long time coming,” said Hildreth, director of Meharry’s Comprehensive Center for AIDS Health Disparity Research. “So the best alternative to a vaccine is a microbicide. And these are gels or creams that women would use to block vaginal transmission of the virus.”

Established in 2003, the center has been developing an AIDS-blocking drug and is on the verge of a breakthrough. Hildreth anticipates his team’s microbicide will enter the drug trial phase in 2008 and, if approved, could be available within three to five years.

Dr. Harry Taylor is part of the Meharry Medical College team developing ways to slow the spread of HIV/AIDS. A UMNS Web-only video image.

About 25 years ago, HIV/AIDS was an ignored and misunderstood disease associated with the homosexual lifestyle and/or Africa. It since has spread into every nation and neighborhood, affecting heterosexuals as well and passed down to unborn children from infected mothers. In the United States, African-American women account for 67 percent of all new infection cases.

“The HIV/AIDS problem is a problem that affects people of color,” said Hildreth. “Being at a medical school like Meharry, which has traditionally served the needs of African-Americans, there is a sense of pride that we might be part of a solution.”

While the best way to fight HIV would be with vaccines like those for influenza, measles and polio, an AIDS vaccine is many years away because the virus “mutates so rapidly and because it has mechanisms at its disposal to turn off the immune response,” said Hildreth.

Microbicides – also known as chemical condoms – are a promising development in the area of prevention. They work much like spermicides but, instead of killing sperm cells to block pregnancy, these gels or creams kill the virus to prevent HIV infection.

Although other microbicides have been tested, Hildreth’s version is different because it includes a cholesterol-based element that offers healthful benefits.

Scientists say the global impact of microbicides could be enormous. With more than 30 million Africans infected — of which nearly 60 percent are women — a microbicide could turn the tide and dramatically reduce HIV infection rates.

AIDS prevention through microbicides is equally promising in the United States. One Meharry researcher who lost his mother-in-law to AIDS a decade ago wishes the drug could have come sooner.

“Having someone that’s close to me that’s been impacted by this disease just gives my work a lot more meaning,” said Dr. Harry Taylor.

For Hildreth, a graduate of Harvard University and Johns Hopkins University and a Rhodes Scholar, conducting his research at Meharry holds special significance. “This is one of the most historic medical problems that physicians and scientists have ever had to deal with,” he said. “So the idea that Meharry could be part of that solution, it’s extremely exciting and we are very proud.”

Meharry is one of many universities supported by The United Methodist Church and, along with 10 other historically black colleges and universities, receives funding through the denomination’s Black College Fund.

*Giles is a freelance producer and writer based in Nashville, Tenn.

News media contact: Linda Green, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

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