Published: 16-09-2022 13:35 | Updated: 16-09-2022 13:35

Synthetic mucus-inspired lubricating gel proves highly effective against HIV and herpes

Graphics in various colors of HIV
Graphic by: Cosmin Butnarasu

A synthetic prophylactic gel derived from cow mucins was in cellular lab tests 70 percent effective in preventing infection with HIV, and 80 percent effective against herpes, researchers from Karolinska Institutet and KTH Royal Institute of Technology show in a new a study in Advanced Science.

Photo of man in a lab coat, glasses and blue gloves.
Hongji Yan. Photo: Private

"The promising results raise hope that if or when this gel becomes available as a product, it could help reverse troubling trends in the spread of sexually transmitted infections," says the study's corresponding author, Hongji Yan, a biomaterials researcher at KTH and affiliated researcher at the Department of Medical Biochemistry and Biophysics at Karolinska Institutet.

The lubricant is derived from mucin, a main component of mucus that is produced in the human body, though suppliers provide the bovine type in purified form for fabrication of hydrogels.

In our body, mucin molecules can bind to and trap virus particles, which are then cleared through active mucus turnover. The synthetic gel replicates this self-healing function, which is a key material property that enables mucus’ lubricity and prophylaxis against infection. The viral prophylactic tests were conducted in a lab on several types of cells.

"The natural complexity of the mucin molecules is why the synthetic gel is so effective at stopping the HIV and herpes without the risk of side effects or development of resistance as with other antiviral compounds. Such functions would be difficult to achieve with a polymer made from scratch", says Hongji Yan. 

Greater control of sexual health

AIDS, the disease caused by HIV, remains a significant global epidemic, and adolescent girls and young women are twice as likely as men to acquire HIV-1 from an infected partner during unprotected intercourse, according to UNAIDS.

Photo of man with crossed arms.
Rafael Ceña Diez. Photo: Shilpa Ray

"The gel could potentially further enhance young women's ability to take control of their sexual health, with little risk for side-effects and no risk of resistance development," says Rafael Ceña-Diez, postdoctoral researcher at the Department of Medicine, Huddinge, Karolinska Institutet, and shared first author of the study. 

The continuation of this work will remain inspired by and derived from nature. The mucin gel will be tested in combination with novel naturally occurring dipeptides with anti-HIV properties, which the researchers have identified and currently are being tested by Rafael in Anders Sönnerborg's research group at Karolinska Institutet.

"It would be of great value if the product reaches the clinic, since it could contribute to stop HIV spread," says Rafael Ceña-Diez.

The project is a collective effort of laboratories at KTH Royal Institute of Technology, the Technical University of Munich (TUM) and Karolinska Institutet. The research has been financially supported by the Swedish Foundation for Strategic Research, FORMAS, the Swedish Research Council and the KTH Lifescience Platform Grant, the Stockholm County Council ALF-grant and the German Research Foundation (DFG).

This news article is based on a press release from KTH Royal Institute of Technology.


Synthetic Mucin Gels with Self-Healing Properties Augment Lubricity and Inhibit HIV-1 and HSV-2 Transmission
Martin Kretschmer, Rafael Ceña-Diez, Cosmin Butnarasu, Valentin Silveira, Illia Dobryden, Sonja Visentin, Per Berglund, Anders Sönnerborg, Oliver Lieleg, Thomas Crouzier, Hongji Yan.
Advanced science. 2022 Sep 14;e2203898. DOI: 10.1002/advs.202203898