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Staving Off STDs and ... Cavities?

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A POTENTIALLY powerful new weapon against sexually-transmitted diseases–under development by a couple of Penn-connected researchers–may already be in your medicine cabinet.
    The substance, sodium dodecyl sulfate, or SDS, is a common ingredient in toothpastes, shampoos and skin products. As it turns out, it also does a great job inactivating HIV and genital herpes, as well as the human papillomaviruses (HPV), which cause genital warts that can lead to cancer, says Dr. Daniel Malamud, professor of biochemistry at Penn’s School of Dental Medicine and co-founder (with Anne-Marie Corner WG’89) of the Philadelphia-based biotech firm Biosyn. The findings were published earlier this year in the journal Antimicrobial Agents and Chemotherapy, with a Penn State University scientist as the lead author.
    As part of a research group, Biosyn has developed a vaginal gel that would prevent pregnancy and protect both partners against a variety of STDs, including AIDS, syphillis, herpes and now–if SDS is added to the mix–HPV. Malamud predicts that the all-purpose product, called Savvy, could be on the market in two or three years.
    Though he’s happy to discuss the research, the toothpaste angle–which has been played up in some news reports–makes him cringe. "It sounds great," he admits. "It doesn’t harm the body. It’s in your toothpaste, it’s in your shampoo ... It’s catchy, but it’s probably not the direction we’d prefer to go."
    Even without the toiletry connection, however, the product represents a significant development in the promotion of safe sex. "If people use condoms all the time, correctly, it would probably prevent the transmission of most STDs," says Malamud, who is the company’s vice president for research and development. (Corner is its president.) "Unfortunately, the woman is at the mercy of the male, because he’s the one who has to wear the condom, and in a power situation, she’s often not in the position to insist upon it. So she’s the vulnerable one. It is believed by us–and others–that what is needed is a ‘female control method,’ something that would be discreet, that the male might not even know about, that would allow a woman to control her own destiny."
    Biosyn originally had developed a compound that was both spermicidal and effective against a large variety of bacteria and viruses that cause STDs. But the microbicide, which has undergone clinical testing at Penn’s School of Medicine and other sites, was not effective against HPV–"a very hard virus to attack," according to Malamud.
    Using funding from the National Institutes of Health, researchers at Biosyn, Penn State’s Milton S. Hershey Medical Center and other institutions searched for a compatible agent that could be combined with the existing formulation to fight human papillomaviruses. "We had tried a number of things that didn’t work," Malamud says. "The first one we had that did work was a monoclonal antibody to HPV, but that’s not an easy drug to develop. You have a hard route through the FDA."
    In need of a "positive control" for the study, lead researcher Dr. Mary K. Howett, professor of microbiology and immunology at Hershey Medical Center, turned to a common lab reagent, SDS. It worked so well against HPV and other viruses, such as HIV and herpes, that she reviewed the scientific literature and discovered it was the ingredient they were looking for.
    "Although we as scientists know SDS as a fairly strong chemical agent for denaturing proteins (such as those that exist on the surface of papilloma)," Malamud says, "it’s actually used in many household products, such as shampoos and toothpastes"–in much stronger concentrations. "As a result it has a long safety profile." And that, he hopes, could mean a shorter wait for FDA approval.

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Copyright 1999 The Pennsylvania Gazette Last modified 6/28/99