Condom technology has come a long way since the days when papyrus and animal intestines were used as prophylactics. But an ancient gender imbalance remains: Women’s sexual safety still depends on their ability to get men to use protection. Now researchers at the University of Utah, proving that (small) size does matter, have developed a molecular female condom. After being inserted into the vagina, the “smart” microbicide gel or suppository thickens in the presence of semen, forming a polymer shield to stop HIV, and releases antiviral drugs. Created by Dr. Patrick Kiser, a bioengineering professor at the university, and a group of postdoctorate students there, the product is years away from the market. But for women wanting discreet control over their sexual health, the prospect is encouraging; especially in developing countries where the need for female-controlled STD prevention and contraception is greatest. “Even [in the U.S.],” Kiser says, “after one migrates out of condom use in a relationship, it’s difficult to negotiate condom use because it implies distrust.” He also wishes more of his colleagues would confront women’s health. “When male physical scientists run into the word vagina they are often turned off.” Thankfully, trailblazers like Kiser are finally giving the vagina the attention it deserves.
A new gel to empower women