It starred research doctors, not Hollywood divas, but May's Microbicides 2002 conference in Antwerp, Belgium, nevertheless served up some hilarious vagina monologues. The global gabfest on HIV-blocking gels and creams featured one scientist who pontificated about the physics of vaginal fluids, then blushed beet red at the mention of female orgasm. Another could refer to arousal only as "the good circumstances for sex."

Fortunately, most speakers left their squeamishness at home. A Texas researcher presented a sobering study of the attitudes of U.S. health-care providers who work with teens. They said they'd be unlikely to counsel girls to use microbicides because their clients have such a hard time taking the condom message to heart -- strange reasoning, since that's precisely why a noncondom option would be so helpful! More encouraging, Britain's Julie Pickering found that facing an HIV test wasn't a serious barrier to women's enrollment in a microbicide trial. This kind of finding -- that women can and will join trials -- is useful ammo against science-world skepticism about whether women in developing countries are willing to get tested for HIV and able to give informed consent and use microbicides correctly.

Lots of chatter could be heard on how to spread the word that the ubiquitous nonoxynol-9 spermicide actually expedites HIV transmission.

Overall, participants shared the sense that the decade-long fight to bring effective microbicides to market may have finally turned a corner. Next year marks the launch of two massive Phase III trials that together will enroll more than 17,000 women. And the conference was the coming-out party for the new International Partnership for Microbicides, an independent foundation that will dump resources and clout behind microbicide research and access.