A lubricant made with cow mucus could protect against HIV and herpes, scientists say.
Lab experiments proved the gel, which would be applied in the same way as shop-bought ones currently, could beat the sexually transmitted infections.
Human cells first treated with the lubricant were 70 to 80 per cent less likely to get infected with HIV and herpes.
The researchers said their ‘promising’ creation could slow the spread of STIs, if it is made publicly available following further tests.
The researchers, from the KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, Sweden, examined whether mucus could stop STIs from getting into the body and spreading in the same way. The team, led by researcher Hongji Yan, extracted mucus from cow salivary glands, which they turned into a mucin-based lubricant
In lab experiments, researchers in Sweden exposed human cells to the sexually transmitted infections. The results show that cells that were first exposed to their lubricant — made from a component of cow mucus — were 70 to 80 per cent less likely to become infected with HIV and herpes. Pictured: mucus-based lubricant (yellow liquid) trapping HIV and HSV viruses (pink and blue particles)
How can you protect against an STI?
Sexually transmitted infections (STIs) are passed from one person to another through unprotected sex or genital, oral or anal contact.
Anyone who has sex can get an STI, even if they don’t have lots of sexual partners.
Using a condom during sex is the best way to avoid catching an STI.
Health chiefs also encourage people to get tested, along with their partner, before sexual activity, even if they have no symptoms — as many STIs have none.
Sexual health clinics are the best place to get tested.
Mucus — found in the nose, throat and oesophagus — traps bacteria, viruses and dirt to stop them reaching and damaging the lungs.
Mucus is also packed with protective proteins that help break down these germs and force them out of the body through coughs and sneezes.
The main component of mucus — a protein called mucin — is thought to have antiviral properties.
The researchers, from the KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, Sweden, examined whether mucus could stop STIs from getting into the body and spreading in the same way.
The team, led by researcher Hongji Yan, extracted mucus from cow salivary glands, which they turned into a mucin-based lubricant.
In a petri dish, the team then exposed human epithelial cells, those which line the inner surface of the body, to HIV-1 — the most widespread version of the virus — or HSV-2, which causes genital herpes.
Half of the cells had been treated with the gel beforehand.
The researchers removed the gel from the cells that had been treated with it and left them exposed to the viruses for two days.
The results, published in the scientific journal Advanced Science, show that only 30 per cent of cells mixed with the lubricant and HIV became infected.
For comparison, 100 per cent of human cells exposed to just HIV became infected.
Meanwhile, just 20 per cent of human cells mixed with the gel and HPV became infected, compared to all of those exposed to just the virus.
The researchers said this shows that the gel stopped the transmission of HIV by 70 per cent and herpes by 80 per cent.
The lubricant works by ‘trapping’ the virus particles and clearing them from the body — replicating the ‘self-healing’ function that mucus naturally provides in the body, according to the scientists.
The mucin in the gel also hinders the activation of immune cells, which are known to fuel the replication of HIV in the body, the team said.
And if the lube was to be used by people, there is little risk of side effects or antiviral resistance because mucin is already found in the body, according to the researchers.
Mr Yan said the gel could help people ‘take greater control of their sexual health’.
He said: ‘It could offer protection when condom protection is not an available option, or even as back-up protection in case of condom failure or incorrect use.
‘It could be used in both female-to-male sex and male-to-male sex.’
As it stands, people are advised to use condoms during sex and to get tested before having sex with a new partner to avoid the spread of STIs.
Some 3,000 people were diagnosed with HIV in the UK last year, while more than 20,000 in England were diagnosed with genital herpes.
Around 35,000 people are diagnosed with HIV every year in the US, while 570,000 are thought to catch genital herpes.
STI rates had been gradually creeping up before Covid hit but lockdowns saw rates naturally decline, given people were less able to meet up for casual sex and flings.